Peter Stanford: More pressure on trustees could deter the good ones

Trustee recruitment is in danger of going into crisis, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

There are few immediately obvious equivalents to being a charity trustee. That's part of the appeal. It's a unique opportunity. The closest parallel I have come across in my travels is being a school governor. Not an exact fit, granted, since the two schools where I have served have both been in the trusteeship of church organisations, rather than of the governing body - but it's a good enough match for there to be lessons to draw.

There is, first and foremost, that shared sense of higher purpose - schools change lives, hopefully for the better; so do charities. Then there is the mix of professionals giving their time and expertise as governors or trustees because of their commitment to the cause and, more widely, to society.

So my eye was caught by a survey published at the start of the month from a government-funded charity, SGOSS-Governors for Schools, highlighting an alarming 30,000 vacancies on school governing bodies. That is roughly one in ten positions nationally, rising to one in four at some schools in rural or deprived areas. People, it seems, just aren't coming forward in sufficient numbers to volunteer their services to governing bodies, despite the preoccupation of every parent who has children of school age, and the nation as a whole, about what goes on in the classroom. The charity is therefore planning a recruitment drive.

Precisely what is putting people off is unclear from the charity's report. It might be wise to identify it, however, because it could also inform charities' relentless search for the right trustees. SGOSS seems to suggest that addressing the shortfall is simply a question of getting the invitation broadcast more widely - in other words, it is because of ignorance of the opportunity, rather than refusal to take it up.

I'm not sure if I agree with this. Even in the decade that I have been a school governor, the regulatory and statutory demands on us have increased significantly, putting off many excellent candidates. They simply don't have the time to meet such expectations, or to do enough to pass Ofsted inspections that also judge governors themselves.

There's a warning bell here for charities. The trend of late has been to lay ever more stress on trustee obligations in relation to governance. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can overshadow the various reasons that individuals want to become trustees, and therefore deter potential recruits. If we are not careful, charities might soon face the same recruitment crisis as school boards.

It is not a question of people being lazy. These are hard times for most households. We are working longer hours for less pay, facing increased bills and more restricted access to credit. With our noses to the grindstone, taking on what now seems a very heavy burden in a governorship or trusteeship can seem a step too far, however much we care.

Another parallel that strikes me is the extent to which SGOSS is vocally pushing much the same line as recent Charity Commission publications about the need to achieve "full and diverse" governing bodies. The education secretary, Michael Gove, had a pop at governors last year for being "local worthies" who seek such seats as a "badge of status, not of work". He clearly wants to see more representation from a range of backgrounds - just as the Charity Commission wants to break the stranglehold of older, white, middle-class men on trustee boards.

I'm all for it in theory, but I doubt whether it will happen any time soon, given the economic obstacles. The pull of volunteering, of putting something back, is well understood: but, with ever-busier lives, many struggle to find time early or in the middle of their careers to follow it up. I fear, Mr Gove and the Charity Commission, that "local worthies" will continue to be required. Perhaps it might be better, therefore, to choose slightly kinder language to describe them. If you make the incumbents feel so unloved that they step down, there really will be a problem.

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

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