Lynn Cadman: Great trustees don’t all have degrees

Sometimes the most valuable lessons about good trusteeship begin at home

Something I have loved doing as Getting on Board’s interim chief executive has been reviewing the draft of the 2027 Coalition report Missed Expertise: Mapping Experiences of First-Time Foundation Trustees

The report is based on interviews of first-time trustees of funding organisations, ranging from the ‘usual suspects’ on boards to people from different backgrounds. 

As I read the draft report, I found myself scribbling notes in the margins – ‘yes’, ‘absolutely’ and ‘this is such an important insight for boards to see’. 

So much of the report resonated with our own research at Getting on Board, including the focus groups and surveys that went into our guide, How to Become a Charity Trustee: a Practical Guide.  

It feels like the conversation has shifted. More funders and charities want to diversify their boards, and recognise the value of those with lived experience of the issues that charities deal with. 

It’s great that the face of trusteeship is starting to better reflect our communities and our society. 

But there are a lot of boards that haven’t articulated why this is important, or fully grasped the benefits of having people with different backgrounds around the table. 

These include the rigour and constructive challenge that comes from a broader range of perspectives, a greater understanding of what service users need, and the vast array of untapped talent that could add to the skills and knowledge already present on boards. 

If these benefits don’t drive our motivation to diversify our boards, and we diversify only for the sake of it, then we might recruit more diverse trustees, but we will struggle to retain them.  

If we don’t acknowledge and appreciate the benefits of a diverse board, we won’t work at making sure the range of voices are heard, even if they get around the table. 

As the report shows, this can mean new trustees from different backgrounds are left feeling uncomfortable and excluded.  

It takes thought, planning and, for many boards, hard questions about how their practices inadvertently shut others out. It’s important to have those conversations before recruiting – and not to put off having them. 

I was really lucky to have a ‘mentor’ on the board when I became a trustee at the age of 24. 

This was not a designated role – in fact, it was my Dad, as we served as trustees together at our church. 

While it is not always ideal to be a trustee alongside close relatives, I’m so grateful for that experience. 

Although he was a white man, my Dad wasn’t a ‘typical’ trustee when he was first elected. He became a trustee in his 20s, and soon after had a young family. 

He left school without a huge number of qualifications and worked as a BT engineer for many years, as well as in a range of manual jobs. 

He was not familiar with governance jargon, he didn’t use words like ‘strategy’, and his day job didn’t involve scrutinising management accounts or talking about organisational development.  

But he had people around him who taught him how to carry out his trustee role, and later the role of honorary secretary.  

Dad was an amazing trustee. He instinctively understood how to balance long-term vision with immediate priorities, practicalities of building maintenance with care of people, and he had the humility to know that he didn’t have all the answers or the charisma to drive changes on his own.  

He spent a lot of time listening, but when he spoke it was usually with real insight, wisdom and care. He was a quiet, determined, down-to-earth man who just got on with things – but also inspired others in the process.  

I didn’t realise growing up that I was seeing trusteeship in action, or that my Dad was such an unconventional role model. I didn’t need to learn that people without degrees could make fantastic trustees, because I saw it first-hand.  

Trustees with professional qualifications or decades of management experience have no greater potential to make excellent trustees than those without. But the 2027 Coalition report highlights that it can sometimes feel as though they do. 

One of the brilliant things about the report is that it gives straightforward pointers for ensuring we welcome all trustees on the board. 

They include open recruitment, giving all new trustees the best chance of ‘hitting the ground running’ with a good induction, reimbursing trustee expenses by default so individuals don’t feel awkward about having to ask for their train fare to be paid.

I’d encourage you to read the report. Use it to reflect on your organisation and board, and ask yourself: "What can we take from this to give all of our trustees the best opportunity to serve our organisation well?" 

To funders: what can you do to help your grantees achieve this? 

That way, all trustees will have the ability and opportunity to put their unique skills and experience to best use, just as my Dad did.

And to my Dad – thank you.  

Lynn Cadman is the interim chief executive at Getting on Board 

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