For many years, there has been a general view in some parts of the charity sector that young people do not especially want to be trustees. But it seems increasingly clear that the barriers to getting people onto boards are not to do with the motivation and attitudes of young people.
Instead, there are two primary issues. The first is that there are often practical barriers in terms of information and training. The second is that there are often preconceptions and prejudices on the part of existing board members that prevent them from believing the idea will work.
Recent research into young trusteeship, commissioned by the insurance firm Ecclesiastical and jointly carried out with Getting on Board and the Young Trustees Movement, found that 24 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds would be interested in becoming trustees once they understood what was involved in the role, a finding in line with the rest of the population. However, only 9 per cent could explain what a trustee was.
We found that young people were keen to receive more information about how to become trustees: 48 per cent said more guidance was needed from charities on how to become trustees, 45 per cent said charities needed to promote the benefits of being trustees more widely, and 42 per cent said charities should demonstrate that the skills and experience gained were valuable in the job market. The same proportion – 42 per cent – said charities should do more to proactively engage with schools and universities.
The research chimes with my own experience. I’ve seen a lot of keen younger people come to our workshops to find out about becoming trustees, many of them from within our own sector. Meanwhile, the Young Trustees Movement, whose advisory group I sit on, has been doing a great campaigning job in the sector to encourage more charities to take on young trustees. It has had a lot of interest and support from people who understand the basic principle that more diverse boards make better decisions, saying that of course we should have younger trustees.
But I’ve also seen first hand the barriers put in the way of young people. We know that a lot of existing boards would block them. I've been on a board myself where I simply couldn't convince them that they should consider having younger trustees.
I've also been on an incredible board, at a student community organisation, which had three student trustees at any one time, and it worked brilliantly. But sadly it feels as if this board was the exception, rather than the rule.
There are practical barriers to getting young people on boards. They need support and confidence. We’re all hierarchical by nature and it’s easy for any of us, whatever our age, to be intimidated by someone who appears to be more experienced than us.
And going to meetings and contributing usefully is a learned skill. Young people need support with this.
But young people contribute a different perspective, which makes this extra investment worthwhile. The traditional idea is that the main things a young trustee brings are digital skills and lived experience, but this is deeply underselling it. Their presence offers not just an insight into Twitter, but a different world view.
When thinking of recruiting young trustees, consider the practical considerations outlined in recent #iwill guidance, or in the guidance produced by Leon Ward for the Charities Aid Foundation. Advertise widely, pay expenses, check they can get to meetings and give them buddies.
We're seeing some progress in the right direction. We’ve gone from almost no young trustee adverts to a few a month. The Blagrave Trust, Roundhouse and a few others are ground-breaking in this respect. And we're running the Student Board Bank initiative with King’s College London and the university’s student union, as well as developing a programme with the National Union of Students to support students to become trustees of environmental organisations.
Of course, you might want to think about what youth really means in the context of your board. If everyone on your charity board is over 75, even getting some trustees in their 50s might be a good step in the right direction.
Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting on Board, a charity that focuses on trustee recruitment