Opinion: Two-term trustees can ease the route to diversity

Julia Neuberger, a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering

Last month, the National Trustee Survey conducted by Third Sector and npfSynergy found that 92 per cent of trustees described themselves as white British and that boards were dominated by older men. There were more trustees aged over 75 than under 34, and 62 per cent of all trustees were male.

But despite this hard evidence, 75 per cent of trustees thought their charities had diverse boards "reflecting the complexity of the organisation and stakeholders". No doubt we can all come up with explanations as to why this should be, but I cannot help feeling that until organisations are determined to set time limits for their trustees - and by that I do not mean retirement age limits - we won't see much change. Any halfway decent voluntary organisation has taken on board - intellectually, at least - the need for diversity. But they are also desperate to recruit and retain the skills they need on their boards, and some are harder to find than others. Trustees with real financial experience, who understand accounts at the drop of a hat, are in very short supply. Time and again, I have been told that an organisation would like to set firm time limits for trustees but is terrified it will lose its members with financial skills or legal knowledge.

But the underlying truth is more worrying. For some, the role of trustee gives position, influence and a sense of purpose - this can be particularly true for older people who have retired from their mainstream occupations.

Most of us are delighted if people have the time to give the service, and older people, who have time to give and the inclination to give it, often make wonderful trustees. But if it is being done only for position or out of a fear of losing influence, we should be taking a closer look.

The second area for concern is that people think the board composition truly reflects the complexity of the organisation and its stakeholders.

Few organisations would be accurately reflected by a top-heavy age profile and minimal involvement of trustees from ethnic minorities. So something is wrong here. Perhaps if trustees stay in place for a long time, their identification becomes so strong that they see themselves as the organisation.

They fail to face the reality of who the charity is there to serve, seeing only those who serve on its board and senior management. That may explain why people say so blithely that their charity is well represented in terms of diversity.

All the more reason, then, to have clear term limits. Two four- or five-year terms should be the maximum. That would have two effects. First, it would stop people regarding an organisation as their personal fiefdom.

Second, it would give people a chance to look at diversity issues every time they had to recruit a new trustee.

I would love the Charity Commission to enforce such an approach. It might make those who have served as trustees for too long realise that they could move on, learn more and give their talents to another organisation. We need stronger guidance - maybe even regulation - because the present situation is simply not good enough.


- The Third Sector/nfpSynergy survey of 559 staff and 730 trustees from 259 organisations showed that 2 per cent of trustees were British Asian - the largest ethnic minority group - and 1 per cent were black British. The international development charities that took part had no trustees in the black, Asian or 'other white' categories.

- Organisations helping older people had the most ethnically diverse trustee boards, followed by children's and young people's charities. Sixty one per cent of trustees were male, and the average age was 57.

- Last year TimeBank and the Charity Commission launched Get on Board (www.getonboard.org.uk), a drive to recruit more people from a range of backgrounds as trustees. There are 750,000 trustees running the 190,000 charities in England and Wales.

- In the House of Commons, 15 out of 659 MPs are from ethnic minorities. Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, has called this "incredibly slow progress" and said "at this rate, we won't have a representative House of Commons until the year 2080".

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus