NEWS IN FOCUS: Shedding light on trustee recruitment procedures

Mathew Little

Trustee boards have traditionally been criticised for being insular and non-representative. After the Government's request for greater diversity and transparency, Mathew Little reports on progress so far

The decision by children's charity NCH to involve young people in choosing members of its board is the latest sign that a trend towards transparency is beginning to open up the shrouded area of trustee recruitment.

A group of the charity's beneficiaries - young people who use NCH's services - were invited to interview candidates and submit a written evaluation (Third Sector, 7 January). Two young people also came to the charity's London headquarters to present their views to senior trustees responsible for new appointments.

As a result, five new trustees were taken on to work with the 15-strong existing board in establishing a new strategic plan for the organisation.

There may be suspicions that the new policy is as much a PR exercise as a serious attempt at involving users, but it is a blow to the 'old boy network' method of filling trustee boards.

A recent governance survey by chief executive's body Acevo found that word of mouth is still the most popular method for finding new charity trustees. Around half of all charities use a nomination committee drawn from existing trustees to recruit their chairmen. Advertising and headhunters are only used by a minority.

"The impression that comes through very strongly is of an inward-looking process that will reinforces both present strengths and weaknesses in the board," the report concluded. "There seems considerable scope for opening up the process and attempting to obtain infusions of fresh blood."

In common with many other areas of charitable activity, there is also pressure from government on charities to be more open and transparent about how trustee boards are chosen.

One little-known recommendation from the Government's Private Action, Public Benefit report on charity regulation was that charities should disclose in their annual reports how their trustees are recruited. The Government has also said it wants to encourage charities to bring greater diversity to trustee boards.

Drug rehabilitation charity Turning Point jumped the gun last summer by taking the radical step of advertising for a completely new board of trustees.

Public affairs manager David Chater says that a new strategic plan, which included adding a campaigning role to the organisation's remit and developing new services, required "rapid and quite extensive change". The conclusion was that it needed new blood on its board. The existing trustees agreed to re-interview for their positions, and ads for new applicants were placed in the national press and the ethnic minority press to ensure diversity.

Almost 40 candidates were interviewed by an independent panel, headed by former Charity Commissioner Julia Unwin. The result was that the board was reduced from 14 to nine. The chairman, Lionel Joyce, and one trustee were re-appointed, but all other members were new. Among them are the head of diversity at the Prisons Service, Judy Clements, the head of equality and human rights at the Department of Health, Elisabeth Al-Khalifa, and the director of the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, Matt Muijen.

Chater says the new board has enabled greater focus, both on the governance of the charity, and clinical issues. It also enabled representation of the different groups the charity works with.

"Recruiting a board which is reflective of the communities and groups we work with was a crucial factor and we have been reasonably successful with this," he says. Three of the nine trustees have experience of ensuring diversity.

Andrew Brown, vice-president of environmental charity BTCV and former deputy chairman of the Charity Trustee Network, believes charities should review how they recruit board members to ensure competences and commitment.

But this should not be intertwined with a misguided desire to ensure that trustees are 'representative' of beneficiaries or the diversity of society as a whole.

"In most charities, the board should not be there to be representative, it is there to do a job. I've seen 'representationalism' working to the detriment of charities."

He argues that the drive for representation of different stakeholders and groups, spurred by funders such as the Community Fund, leads to much larger boards than charities really need. "Boards should be in single figures. Boards of 15 or 20 don't work."

Brown suggests there are other ways of discovering what user groups want, apart from a seat on the board. "If you want to find out what your stakeholders or beneficiaries think, go and ask them. But you don't need someone with a particular perspective sitting on the board."

Indeed he disputes the widespread perception of charity trustees as being middle-aged, middle-class and white. "Trustees are drawn from everywhere in society. There are as many as 1 million trustees in Britain - that's one in 50 of the population. Anyone interested in working with charities can find a trusteeship."

Lisa Harker, chairwoman of childcare charity the Daycare Trust, believes board members need to have key competences, but this should not preclude the aspiration to make trustees as representative as possible. "Every board member has to bring skills with them, but I see no problem with trying to ensure a balance of interests," she says. "We have representatives of childcare organisations and those voicing parents' views on our board.

At times, these groups have very different perspectives; it's important to be aware of their views when making strategic decisions."

The trust is currently reviewing its method of recruiting trustees. The options under consideration are advertising, using recruitment agencies and inviting stakeholders such as the Government and other childcare organisations to nominate members.

The charity already carries out a skills audit on its board and invites members to put forward candidates. "But," says Harker, "we still felt we wanted to go further and widen the net, to make the board as representative as possible."

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