Penny Wilson: Trustees might be free, but you still need to spend money on them

Charities might think that because trustees aren't paid it is not necessary to expend resources on them. Nothing could be further from the truth

Penny Wilson
Penny Wilson

Over the past few years, it’s become obvious that governance is a big challenge for the charity sector. Successive crises in big charities have involved criticism of the governance function. Legal changes and the approach of regulators have emphasised the breadth of duties and responsibilities for trustees.

The truth is that it’s vital for any charity to have a strong governance function. Whether you’re small and trustees are involved in service delivery, or you’re very big and trustees are supervising the work of whole departments in cities and countries they have never been to, you need to have a board that is capable of setting an effective strategy, providing proper support to any senior staff and reacting quickly and effectively when things go wrong.

These are important functions, and they need investment. There is a feeling that governance costs should be as low as possible, but this is not the best way to think.

It’s vital that charities put significant effort into recruiting the right trustees, giving the board the right training and thinking hard about what the organisation actually needs from the governance function. Time and money invested in this is invested well.

Our organisation exists to help charities recruit strong trustee boards. Too many charities say they struggle to recruit trustees, and perhaps this isn’t surprising when you realise that most charities rely largely on word of mouth and that less than 10 per cent of trustee roles are ever advertised. As a result, too many charities are simply asking "Who is willing to do the job?" rather than trying to proactively recruit to get the range of skills, backgrounds and personalities required.

It’s remarkable that so many trustees are recruited by word of mouth, when few of us would dream of recruiting full-time staff just by asking our friends if one of them wanted a job.

The result is that only 14 per cent of charities feel their boards are well equipped to meet the compliance, strategic and development needs facing their organisations. And 59 per cent of charities report that their boards are not representative of the communities they serve.

We've found that, for almost any charity, there are more than enough people with the right skills who are willing join your board, but it requires investment in the right approach. Our recent publication How to Recruit Trustees for Your Charity is based on work we did with small and medium-sized charities to recruit trustees, and we found that there were several helpful approaches: using a range of different networks, approaching local and national bodies that have people with the right skills and using the many websites – including this one – that allow you to list trustee vacancies.

In a nutshell, you’ll have more success if you go out to find trustees based on the particular characteristics you are looking for, rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach. If you’re looking for HR skills, go to local employers with HR departments or use jobs sites, or look at social media, where HR specialists congregate. And so on. Don’t expect trustees to find you and don’t expect that they already know what a trustee is or that they want to be one.

Nor is it enough to simply recruit trustees. It’s vital to have a clear idea what you want them to do and what benefits you want to get from them. This process, too, requires an investment of time and perhaps money. Trustees have limited time to give: it’s crucial that investment is made beforehand so that when you have them around the table everyone knows what is needed.

In larger charities, where trustees are arguably responsible for far too much, it makes sense to ensure that there is sufficient professional support: a company secretary and a professional governance unit, which can ensure that the necessary information flows to trustees.

Finally, all trustees need training. This isn’t just about understanding your charity, although that is important. Governance is a skill in itself, and quite a different one to anything most people will encounter in their day jobs.

In short, there is a danger that charities think that, because trustees aren’t paid, it is not necessary to spend any money on them. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

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

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