We need a revolution in who our sector values as trustees. We currently place the most value on potential trustees with high social status, previous board experience and a narrow set of professional skills.
Now, there is nothing wrong whatsoever with potential trustees who fit that description. Plenty of them are superb at what they do.
But surely we want access to other sorts of talent, too?
Across the sector, the most common way of becoming a trustee is still by being asked. This means that people often join boards with their egos massaged and their expectations askew.
We tend to look for people we know and who we think will fit in. This results in homogenous boards, a fear of challenge and debate and a set of narrow perspectives that limit the impact of our organisations.
But when I asked my network what they thought made a good trustee, the responses were far removed from the expectations we set when we recruit.
I think they are also far removed from the reality of sitting on many boards.
There is some gold dust here for all of us: for those recruiting trustees, for chief executives and senior managers working with their boards and for trustees themselves.
Trustees should have relevant knowledge, networks and experiences.
This feels like stating the bleeding obvious, but common sense is not necessarily common practice. “We are still instinctively impressed with particular professions or experiences, regardless of whether the person adds something different to the discussions,” one person told me.
Trustees must be generous with their skills and support.
It is not enough to have useful things on your CV. Trustees must be proactive in leveraging their own expertise.
Trustees must commit to their own development.
This applies whether a trustee is improving their understanding of the charity, the field in which it operates or other areas of skills or knowledge. After all, how can a person make a decision on something they don't truly understand?
Trustees should be willing to learn about charity governance and finance.
If organisations require applicants to already have this knowledge (and there are cases where that is necessary), they recruit from a much smaller and less diverse pool. So charities need to consider how they can provide or signpost this training.
Trustees should have good self-awareness.
Trustees must recognise their shortcomings and be proactive in addressing them for the benefit of the organisation. A good trustee asks themselves how to be a good trustee.
Trustees must be passionate about the mission.
Trustees need to leave their ego at the door and recognise that this isn’t about them. They should commit the time and effort needed to really know the organisation.
Trustees need to be able to challenge with good intent.
“I think a great trustee is one who isn’t afraid to be a disruptor,” one person told me. “While a harmonious and jolly board meeting is all well and good, you do need people who are brave enough to share a challenging opinion.”
Trustees should listen, be open to challenge and be able to change their minds.
Often trustees like the sound of their own voices too much and have made up their minds before the discussion takes place. They also have a role in supporting fellow board members to have their voices heard.
Trustees should have the ability to listen and desire to hear the voices of those who are impacted by the decisions they make.
The voices of those who have lived experience of the issues the charity is trying to tackle are too often absent from board decisions. Ultimately, if a board doesn't have a service user in its ranks, then it is missing valuable intel.
Trustees must supply their chief executives with Flake bars.
We must invest in constructive staff and board relationships that strike a balance between being supportive and helping the chief executive, staff and other trustees to think beyond their comfort zone.
Talking of sweets, one chief executive said: “A good trustee shows commitment, boundaries, interest, kindness, courage. Oh, and if they occasionally bring you a Flake bar, it helps.”
Trustees, if you remember only one of these traits, make sure it’s the last one: said every charity chief executive ever.
Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting on Board