Give strong consideration to paying trustees, says Julia Unwin

In a blog on her website, the former chair of the Inquiry on the Future of Civil Society says the price of not doing so might be boards that are 'less inclusive than they might be'

Julia Unwin
Julia Unwin

Charities should give strong consideration to paying trustees to ensure the charitable model works well for the next century and to help boards become more diverse, according to Julia Unwin, former chair of the Inquiry on the Future of Civil Society.

In a blog on her website, Unwin, also a former chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, says the price charities might be paying for following the voluntary trusteeship model could be "having governing bodies which are less inclusive than they might be".

The blog was prompted by a debate on Twitter about an article in the latest edition of Third Sector on whether charities should start paying trustees.

Unwin says in the blog that, on balance, there are "really strong – indeed, compelling – arguments for keeping trusteeship voluntary".

She says that doing so gives trustees independence because they are not reliant on the charity for income and paying trustees might be considered by some as a poor use of charitable funds.

The voluntary ethos of the charity sector, the fact that the majority of charities do not pay for any staff and the large pool of potential trustees available for the most prominent charities are also reasons not to pay them, Unwin says.

But despite these arguments, she adds, the failure to pay trustees more widely in the charitable sector could restrict trusteeship to more well-off social groups.

"We should recognise that all of this does come at a cost," Unwin writes. "It does restrict the pool of people who can afford to do it. And the price we pay as a sector may be having governing bodies which are less inclusive than they might be. That’s quite a price."

Unwin’s blog says charities should be more confident about the benefits of trusteeship and argues for more investment in good governance.

"We ought to be much more explicit and much less embarrassed about the benefits received from trusteeship," she says.

"How about recognised professional accreditation? We ought to be much more open about payment for loss of earnings. And I don’t mean barristers having their fees reimbursed. I do mean the barista having her wages replaced.

"We definitely ought to be arguing forcibly for time off, but in an increasingly freelance economy perhaps we ought to also be asking for tax relief on time given."

Unwin warns that charities cannot expect employers to continue to allow staff to be released for trustee duties to aid their personal development in a world in which the old idea of a "job for life" is rapidly disappearing.

She says: "As the last generation of recipients of final-salary pension schemes hang up their trustee boots, and as demands on trustees get ever greater, are there new and better ways of making sure that a charity set up today will be able to recruit a diverse, knowledgeable, supportive group of people to steer the next generation of charities?

"Just arguing that non-payment of trustees is a system that has served us well for the last century may not be the best possible answer for the next one."

The Inquiry on the Future of Civil Society concluded last year and made a series of recommendations on such issues as the connection between the public and charities and how best to address social divisions in the UK.

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