Peter Stanford: There is no easy answer to trustee recruitment, but... experience has, at the very least, taught me what to rule out, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

What is the best way to appoint trustees? I’ve seen it done every which way, from the old boys’ nod and a wink, through advertising, using headhunters, doing a skills audit and then finding round pegs to fill round holes, and even simply giving in to someone so determined to be a trustee that the rest of the board roll over in front of what feels like a carefully planned and remorseless campaign.

Some were better than others, but none worked perfectly. The clubbable approach has the advantage of bringing on board known quantities, but stinks by any standards of transparency. Using headhunters is expensive, and many boards (mistakenly) recoil from the idea of spending anything on governance.  Despite a small number of really excellent, committed headhunters out there, working exclusively in the not-for-profit sector, there are many more chancers.  And open advertising means a huge time commitment.

I think we have to be realistic. The responsibilities placed on trustees are growing, hence the demands that "their" charity will make on their diaries. If – as we are regularly urged – we are going to make charity boards more diverse in terms of age, ethnic origin and socio-economic background, then expecting to find individuals who tick all the boxes at the same time as demanding attendance at four meetings a year and a commitment to put in the hours needed to see how the charity runs at the grass roots, is, frankly, whistling in the wind. 

Worse, it makes those doing the recruiting look as utterly out of touch with the real world of austerity, zero-hours contracts and just-about-managing as our Prime Minister when she dons her £1,200 bespoke cashmere jumper for a US Vogue photoshoot. And we are meant to be the people who understand the challenges facing our society, because we are trustees of charities that have been specifically set up to tackle these challenges.

If I had an easy answer on trustee recruitment, I would be practising what I preach, but at least experience has taught me what to rule out, however tempting. Do not confuse those who want to give a celebrity endorsement with trusteeship: "names" are for the patrons’ list. Equally, do not reward big donors with a seat at the trustee table. Nothing is for sale in a charity. 

A board needs to collect experts, but it cannot function without someone who knows at close quarters about whatever the "cause" is, otherwise the whole organisation will feel inauthentic. Tokenism? Not if you make sure that every trustee is equally involved, equally listened to, equally influential in determining overall strategy. 

One technique that works well is to think ahead. Many boards now have fixed terms of office, so the chair will know when mandates are about to expire. All trustees, and the management team, should be explicitly and regularly encouraged to put names forward to the chair at all times. Part of the role of chairing the board is to pick through those informally nominated and form an opinion and a shortlist. It’s a bit like being a headhunter, but cheaper. And it’s not a million miles from the old-boys’ club, but the onus for making nominations is much wider, and done openly.

That said, the board recruitment problem will never be completely settled. Any set of rules will fail to cover the huge variety of organisations in our sector.  But common sense, planning, wide horizons and a commitment to transparency, up to where it is practical and affordable, do go a long way.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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