Penny Wilson: Why does no one want to be a trustee?

We hear a lot of excuses when it comes to a lack of trustee diversity – so here are the real barriers

The headache of finding trustees was a common whinge around the (pre-Covid) kettle in our sector. Why does no one want to be a trustee? 

Chief executives complain about the difficulty of finding people. Incumbent trustees complain that they have to continue to serve, because no one wants to take their place. 

In particular, since trustee diversity moved up the agenda, there are long discussions about how difficult it is to attract younger people, women and people of colour to boards.

We hear a lot of excuses at Getting on Board. There’s a grain of truth in some of them, but in other cases, we rather question the truth of what we hear.

Here are some of the more common reasons why charities say they can’t attract trustees.

“They would find being a trustee boring.”

If you think trusteeship is boring, you are doing it wrong.

There are dull bits to some board meetings, it’s true. And there are aspects of trusteeship which cannot, with the best will in the world, be made electrifying.

But mostly it involves making decisions about the direction of a charity, and thinking about how to help more people live better lives. Plus you get to boss the chief executive around. 

That ought to be interesting – and in my experience of being a trustee, it is.

In any case, rather than theorising, we can just look at the evidence. And that seems pretty clear. In our research this year, the lowest ranked barrier to becoming a trustee among young people and people of colour was: “I don't think being a trustee would be an enjoyable experience.”

Right now, there seems to be an element of a self-fulfilling prophecy about the age and gender balance on boards. It’s perceived as something for old white men, so only old white men get asked.

But again and again in our recent history, we have seen roles and activities that were perceived as only for a certain group of people. 

Every time, it turns out there are barriers – legal, economic, cultural – which are preventing other people from getting involved. Take away those barriers, and the diversity of interest grows quickly.

Sure, not everyone is going to want to focus on sitting round a table. Trusteeship isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But we’re not asking everyone to do it. There are plenty who would be very interested. 

“They haven’t got the time.”

The time commitment involved in being a trustee is usually pretty modest. Being a Getting on Board trustee comes with a minimum requirement to attend four board meetings and one away day.

That’s 16 hours of face-to-face time a year. Even if we assume that preparation is double that, we’re still talking less than an hour a week over the course of the year.

Of course, some trustee roles require a lot more. Being chair of a big charity is a very demanding job. And it can be equally time-consuming being a trustee of a small charity with no staff.

If you ask people to give a day a week, you are likely to reduce your pool to people who are retired, or who don’t need to work or care full-time. 

Lots of younger people have more free time than we imagine, and are hungry for the new experiences and skills that a trustee position can bring. 

And I think we can safely assume that there are plenty of women and people of colour who also have the time and inclination to want to be a trustee.

“They don’t have the right skills.”

News flash: there are women accountants, lawyers of colour and fundraisers and marketers under the age of 50.

But if you insist that all of your new trustees need 40 years of professional experience, that they should have been a trustee before, and that they need a degree, you will definitely struggle to find people that fit the bill.

It could be that you need to look again at the skills audit, and pare it down to what is both necessary and realistic.

“They never stay.”

Well, trustees stay on other boards. So if you have an issue with this, there’s only one answer: the problem is likely to be at your end.

So, what’s the real answer?

The most likely one is simple. You are probably not asking enough people, or not asking the right people, and you’re probably not asking in the right places.

If you put out an open advert using websites and networks that are actually used by the kind of people you are looking for, you will find there are loads of people interested in sitting on your board.

Many people don’t really know what a trustee is, or think it is not something that is open to “people like them”. People don’t become trustees because they are not asked, it doesn’t occur to them, and they don’t know how. We are trying to change that.

For this years Trustees Week this week, Getting on Board has brought out a new guide called How to Become a Charity Trustee: A Practical Guide. Support from Ecclesiastical means that the guide will be freely available online, and a hard copy can be bought from the Directory of Social Change.

Get your copy here.  

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


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