Penny Wilson: The art of leaving a trustee role well

Anyone who joins a board should think about how they will leave the organisation in a better place than when they started

The last thing on our minds when we take on a trustee position is leaving that role. 

But I think this is misguided. Instead we should consider right at the start what we want our legacy to be.

The risk otherwise is that we achieve little, overstay our welcome and exit with the oomph of a wet firework. 

So, here are some top tips for trustees on leaving a trustee role well. 

1. Don’t forget to leave 

All trustees should know when it is the time to leave your role – even when you desperately want to stay. You must not get to the point where others are thinking: “Will they never leave?” 

Even in charities with fixed trustee terms, we too often renew automatically with no opportunity for a conversation about whether the trustee is still contributing or really wants to stay.

This can lead to sitting trustees who haven’t got a reason to resign, or even a process by which they can leave – so they don’t. 

It’s better for newly appointed trustees to plan to serve for a fixed amount of time, with a clear idea about what they want to engineer during their term.

What do you want your legacy to be, and how are you going to leave the organisation in a better place than when you started? 

2. Don’t make yourself indispensable 

It does a charity no favours if the whole place falls apart without one individual. Instead, trustees should make a critical contribution, and then make themselves dispensable by achieving what they set out to do and by ensuring that their particular knowledge or skill does not reside in them alone. This is easier said than done, of course. 

3. Don’t ‘slink off’ 

Trustees should communicate their intentions clearly and with as much notice as possible. Unexpected disasters may force a resignation at short or no notice. But this can’t account for all of the trustees that simply stop coming to meetings. 

One chair of trustees told me: “In just over three years, seven trustees have left overnight. This includes two chairs. One chair left overnight and that was very poor with no handover or real communication other than to say they were leaving.” 

Is this because organisations don’t make it easy for trustees to leave, so that when they want to move on they feel that they are letting the side down? Or have they forgotten that good governance means disagreeing sometimes, can’t stomach that? 

4. Find a replacement 

Crucially, this does not mean asking your cousin to join the board. Nor does it mean replacing yourself with an identikit you. But you can support the recruitment process or succession plan.

Rachel Dugdale is a trustee at West Mercia Women’s Aid. She says: “We introduced a maximum-term limit, which I think really focuses the mind. We had to say goodbye to some of our most experienced and established trustees. 

"Part of my response was to map out trustees’ skills and experiences, to identify not only current skill gaps where we needed to actively recruit (or develop the skills of existing trustees), but also to allow for succession planning.” 

By aligning succession planning with the expected end date for each trustee’s term of office, Dugdale says the board can plan for the skills it is at imminent risk of losing, as well as new skills it would like to gain. She hopes it is a process that will outlast her time in the role. 

5. Use your departure to be outspoken 

Tempting though it may be, don’t use your last meeting as an opportunity to say the thing you ought to have got off your chest three years earlier. It is not helpful to lob a bomb into the boardroom as you walk off into the sunset. 

However, trustees might find that they can use their final few months to be forthright, perhaps by amplifying voices within the organisation that are not getting sufficient airtime or presenting data that challenges the current organisational narrative. 

Governance advisor Claris D’cruz says: “Something I have seen time and again is that outgoing trustees speak up more readily towards the end of their stint. This is a period when you can be particularly effective as a challenging champion and constructively critical friend.” 

6. Leave with pride 

So next time you leave a trustee role, go out with a bang. Hold your head up high, have pride in your service and keep the charity in your affections. Then take your trustee experience into another organisation.

What’s not to love about your next chapter? 

Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting on Board, a charity that focuses on trustee recruitment

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