Penny Wilson: To be good trustees we should be ready to learn

Ongoing learning is enjoyable, rewarding and beneficial to us as individuals, as well as useful to the organisations we serve. What’s not to love?

Picture this: a courteous and confident man. He’s an experienced trustee and he’s good at it. He’s happy to speak out and be generous with his time and skills.

But what would he say to the idea that he might need more training for his trustee role? A raised eyebrow and a scoff, perhaps.

What about this person? An impressive local business person: the kind who moves mountains. A-one-person-tornado with an astonishing list of achievements and a black book to die for. 

She’s a trustee and she is also good at it. But what would she say to the idea that she needs trustee training or development? She would take offence and take her superpowers elsewhere.

My point is this: we simply don’t have a culture of trustee learning and development. We recruit people because of what they already know, and this is right. But we mustn’t stop there. No one is a finished article.

To be good trustees, we need to keep learning. And the best bit about this is that ongoing learning is enjoyable, rewarding and beneficial to us as individuals, as well as useful to the organisations we serve. What’s not to love?

Some trustees clearly agree – like the 2,000 people who joined Getting on Board’s Festival of Trusteeship for Trustees Week at the beginning of November.

But I think that most trustees have simply never considered that learning is part of the role.

What trustees need to learn generally falls into one of the following categories:

1. Trustee role and responsibilities: Understanding the legal requirements of your role as trustee (and often company director). This might also include the requirements of other regulators such as Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission.

2. Skills: Can you read charity accounts? Do you know enough about safeguarding? Are you familiar enough with fundraising to be able to support the charity’s staff intelligently – rather than suggest that they give Richard Branson a call? In smaller organisations, this might also include practical skills if, in the absence of staff, trustees are involved in the charity’s day-to-day operations.

3. The charity’s field: Do you have an up-to-date working understanding of the field in which the charity operates? This could be anything from mental health to planning, grant-making to animal health, disability to education.

4. The organisation itself: What are its services? How do you know the organisation is doing a good job? Are you close to the changing needs of current and future service users? Do you know the staff and volunteers? Could you describe the organisation’s direction and strategy if you were stuck in a lift with a potential funder?

We can be really creative about how we provide this learning. It doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated. It might be through mentoring, having a fellow trustee share their skills or chatting with service users. 

There is also training available from councils for voluntary service, as well as resources from The FSI, Getting on Board, the NCVO, the Directory of Social Change, the Small Charities Coalition and many others.

Picture this. A local business owner who also has lived through the challenges your charity seeks to tackle. He brings relevant financial and marketing talents, and a close understanding of the charity’s work. A dream hire.

But his first questions are, “What do I need to know in order to be a useful trustee?” “What can I learn?” “What don’t I understand?” “What’s different in this environment to the one in which I work?” 

These questions continue for his three-year tenure. This attitude affects the whole board, which is taken along on the tide of his thirst for relevant knowledge.  

So, trustees, are you taking care of your own development?

Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting on Board

Topics:
Governance

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