Penny Wilson: How not to interview a trustee

A good trustee should have the skills and knowledge to benefit your charity – but board interviews can often miss the mark

Penny Wilson

This month, I’m exploring how not to interview a trustee, illustrated by my imaginary (but not so far-fetched) charity chair, Samuel, who is interviewing a potential trustee, Ali.

First, let’s recap the point of trustee interviews. You’re whittling down candidates who should have the skills, knowledge, experience and commitment that your organisation needs; a set of attributes that is specific to your organisation, born out of your particular strategy, and that you have identified long before the interview stage.

Is this stating the bleeding obvious? Yes – but let’s look at four ways that things can become horribly unstuck during an interview.

Don’t intimidate your candidates

Samuel, our chair, starts with an introduction that would daunt the most self-confident of souls.

Samuel: I’m high sheriff of Creweshire, I have an MBE for services to enterprise and I am chairman of Coopers. I’ve been chairman of Hidden Carers for 15 years and I have transformed the charity into a national powerhouse. We’re looking for high-calibre trustees with gravitas to support the charity into its next chapter.

Where it went wrong: if you terrify your candidate or confirm their perceptions that normal people like them don’t sit on boards, they are not going to be at their best and you might miss out on an outstanding trustee.

Remove barriers to talented people joining your board

Review which of your requirements are essential. In particular, you need a good reason to require previous trustee experience, given that it will significantly limit your pool of potential talent.

Samuel: Have you been a trustee before?

Ali: No, but I have been a school governor and served on several charity advisory committees. I’ve been thinking about being a trustee for some time. I’ve been on an intensive trustee training programme and I am a shadow trustee at Caring Parents.

Samuel: But there’s no real substitute for actually doing it, is there?

Where it went wrong: How are people meant to break into trusteeship if we require them to have done it before? People can learn how to be an effective trustee.

Don’t reject people because their ideas are too radical

Organisations may advertise for trustees with new perspectives, but when we meet them we get scared that they might ruffle the feathers of a well-oiled board.

Samuel: I see you are the head of digital marketing for Virgin. Help me see the relevance to Hidden Carers.

Ali: There is enormous potential in digital marketing to allow you to reach more carers. I’ve drawn up some initial ideas. Digital marketing would be particularly valuable in reaching the 4.5 million people who first started caring during the pandemic.

And a powerful tool to engage the 800,000 young carers who are most likely to consume their information via digital media.

I wonder if you are perhaps not currently making full use of the potential of digital marketing. Shall I run through some of my ideas?

Samuel: (Nervously) Well, if we appoint you, I’m sure there will be ample opportunity to hear your ideas.

Where it went wrong: Effective governance is built on challenge and difference and you should be bravely welcoming relevant new perspectives with open ears. It doesn’t mean that Samuel’s board would adopt all of Ali’s ideas, but they should certainly be considering them.

Don’t test applicants on things they couldn’t possibly know

Samuel: What do you think the charity’s challenges are in the next five years?

Ali: I’d say they are probably funding, profile in a crowded market, government policy, safeguarding and reaching the people who most need your support. However, I’d really like to hear from you what the charity’s challenges are?

Samuel (scoffs): I don’t think I’m here to give you all of the answers.

Where it went wrong: It may be true that Samuel is not there to offer answers, but he should at least provide the right question. Explain the charity’s challenges to candidates, then ask them to talk through their suggestions.

Samuel phones the charity’s chief executive after the interview and says: “Ali would be a step too far with his new-fangled ideas. None of us knows him, and he’s at least two decades too young. His type never stays anyway.”

Ali decides that trusteeship isn’t for him after all – a missed opportunity not just for Hidden Carers, but for the other charities Ali might have gone on to serve.

Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting On Board

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