Peter Stanford: Time off for trustees? Nice idea, but rather unrealistic

If we are going to rejuvenate trustee boards we need to make the whole process more structured, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

There are many plus sides to self-employment, not least being spared the sweaty armpits of the London Underground crush at 8am every morning. So let me make it clear at the very outset that I'm not complaining about my lot.

But - and, of course, there had to be a but - among the downsides is the sure knowledge that each and every announcement about strengthening employment rights has nothing to do with you. There is something mildly absurd about the fact that, while the number of self-employed people has climbed rapidly over the past decade to reach 4.2 million - or 14 per cent of the workforce - the government has concentrated its efforts on giving more protection and benefits to the shrinking number of people in salaried posts. It is as if the self-employed are beyond help.

It is the same with the otherwise sensible proposals put forward last month by the Acevo governance commission, headed by Derek Twine. It wants to see, for example, a legal right for employees to have time off to take on trusteeships. This amounts, I suppose, to indirect payment of those trustees who are salaried.

But I wonder what percentage of trustees are self-employed? Government statistics suggest that you are more likely to be self-employed if you are older and male. Ring any bells? That is more or less the demographic of trustees. So I would suggest it is not unreasonable to assume that the percentage of trustees who are self-employed is higher than the percentage of self-employed in the workforce in general. A quarter? Higher still?

Hard to know, but that could be the next piece of work for Acevo's governance experts. And once a figure is reached, then perhaps it might consider making some proposals to assist the self-employed in taking on trusteeships.

One detail of the report took me by surprise. In proposing a legal right for salaried employees to take time off to be trustees, it pointed out that such an arrangement already exists for school governors. I've been one of those for a good decade now and have never even heard that fact mentioned. That's natural enough, you might conclude, since it doesn't affect me, but that complete silence makes me wonder about the extent to which reluctant employers are the problem when it comes to recruiting trustees and school governors.

Most boards I sit on meet in the evenings after 'normal' working hours, or at weekends. That might be because there are so many difficult employers out there, telling their staff that they can't have time off to lend their expertise to the charity or school of their choice. But when workloads are so high, office politics and career paths work against those who show they have outside interests, and the UK has the worst long-hours culture in western Europe, it might simply be that trustees and governors prefer to fit such commitments into their spare time rather than demand time off.

It's that note of unreality that I'm objecting to. Yes, in an ideal world we could all set up legal structures to allow more people to take on these vital volunteering roles on charity and school boards. And every little bit, as they say, helps. But down at the grass roots, in the working and family lives of the people I rub shoulders with on such boards, this all sounds a bit irrelevant.

The same goes for the proposal - again admirable in principle - that salaried trustees spend a healthy amount of time undertaking training, examining their effectiveness and being appraised. Again - and this is not a statistically based observation - my experience is that such inward-looking exercises are often what turn busy people off from sitting on boards. "I joined to make a difference - not to navel-gaze," they say.

One of the more disturbing developments of recent years has been the trend to load an ever-heavier burden of regulation and process on volunteer boards - I am frankly amazed that anyone agrees to be a school governor now, given how much onus rests on them as a result of successive government reforms.

If we are going to rejuvenate trustee boards and bring in a wider mix in terms of age, ethnicity, gender and skills, then to make the whole process more rigid, more structured, wrapped up in legal rights and introspective training programmes is, I fear, to head in the wrong direction.

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

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