It is, as they say, the little things that count. Widening participation on trustee boards has long been a cause to which everyone is committed. The governing bodies of charities must – of course they must – reflect the diversity of society, and the need is ever more urgent as charities come under greater scrutiny than ever.
But progress has been painfully slow despite the fine words, the reports, the guidance notes, the eternal debate on paying trustees and a whole raft of other well-intentioned initiatives.
If there is a certain weariness in the way I reel off that list, then I apologise. It is not as if I have any better suggestions. Until now. And it comes from practical experience. In my too-many years as a trustee – and the too-many is probably a good reason why I should be pensioned off as an obstacle to widening participation – I have always taken it for granted that trustee meetings are in the evenings. That was the way things were when I was growing up in charities.
The logic is simple. If working folk are going to take on trustee roles, they have to fit them round their day jobs. Yes, I know that employers are encouraged to give you time off to attend as part of corporate social responsibility, but it doesn’t make it any easier, when your inbox is full and clients are screaming for an answer to their requests, to absent yourself mid-morning to go to a trustee meeting.
Evening meetings make it easier for young working folk. But daytime is preferable for senior management at the charity
But in recent years I have joined two boards whose regular gatherings were by tradition scheduled for daytime during the working week. It never occurred to me, in the courting process, to ask something so very mundane and basic as what time the regular trustee meetings took place. All I knew was that it was four-a-year, so that sounded fine.
What I have found, though, is that it is quite a challenge to accommodate these absences from my desk during "peak" hours. And I have the huge bonus of being, in effect, self-employed, though still at the beck and call of various "employers" on whom my livelihood and mortgage repayments depend.
How much harder would it be, I find myself asking, if I was still struggling to make my way in the world of work rather than being relatively well established – for which, read old – and if my future prospects depended on the crazy long-hours working culture in this country of being seen to be at my desk at all times as a demonstration of my eagerness?
It brings us hard up against a choice. Evening trustee meetings will undoubtedly make it easier for young working folk – rather than, say, retirees – to join boards. But for those members of the senior management teams at the charities concerned who attend board meetings, daytime slots are preferable. They already routinely put in much longer hours than they are contracted to do, and their work-life balance is just as precarious – and precious – as anyone else’s. By making it easier for trustees, we make it harder for the staff
It is an inconvenient truth. Whichever way you go on this one, you risk offending someone and detracting from that "we-are-all-in-it-together" spirit that otherwise works well at the heart of an essentially democratic organisation such as a charity.
So should it be a straight choice? Should we favour one group over the other? That feels uncomfortable and antithetical to the spirit of voluntary organisations. And, anyway, which one?
Or is a mixture possible? Probably, but it might not deliver the full attendance that is ideal. I’m left wondering if anyone else, facing the same dilemma, has got any advice to offer – a way that manages both to widen participation and to stop work diaries from going up in flames.
Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years