It's a strange thing being a trustee: no one outside our rather cloistered world seems certain of what we do. What happens in boardrooms - or, more typically, scout huts or hotel meeting rooms - is a mystery to friends, family and many charity employees.
I have been a trustee twice. What's interesting to me about this is just how different the two experiences were. The first time I joined a board it was for an organisation I had been involved with in different ways for most of my adult life. And yet, looking back, it was not an altogether fulfilling experience.
That's not to say I didn't believe in the work of the organisation or connect with its personnel. Indeed, I think the opposite was the case, which may have led to blurred boundaries and assumptions about the respective approaches of the board and staff to the situation we found ourselves in.
Perhaps I was complacent in some ways. I knew the organisation well and knew I could get up to speed quickly, so often only skimmed the literature I was sent rather than investing fresh thinking in it.
Then, a few years ago, at a reception in Brighton, I was cornered by the chair of an equality charity. We discussed some of the strategic challenges the charity was facing, the vision and aspirations he and the staff had and the charity's relations with the local authority.
That chat got me thinking. I called the chair up a few days later to offer my thoughts. Within days, I was filling an application form to join the board, and there followed a very rewarding volunteering experience that lasted three years.
Although it was a small charity, I was interviewed by staff, trustees and volunteers, and my acceptance was dependent on my meeting certain criteria. These included devoting a set number of hours each month to the role, helping with certain areas of policy and meeting clear rules on attendance at meetings.
These contrasting experiences seem to fit a broader pattern and point to the need for much greater care being taken by small and medium-sized organisations when recruiting trustees. Smaller organisations seem reluctant to stand confidently in front of potential trustees. Be clear and bold, and don't be scared of being assertive - it's the last chance you'll get to really lay down the law before the boot switches to the other foot.
- Peter Kyle is a director of strategy and enterprise at Acevo