A report revealing that the majority of trustees are male, retired and well-off has called for a national campaign to promote trusteeship and a national register of trustee vacancies.
The report, Taken on Trust: The Awareness and Effectiveness of Charity Trustees in England and Wales, was commissioned by the Charity Commission and the Office for Civil Society, and is based on a survey of about 3,500 trustees carried out by Cass Business School and the Cranfield Trust in January.
The report says that there are 150,000 fewer trustees in England and Wales than previously believed. The commission register records about 950,000 trustee roles, of which 100,000 are identified as being held by someone who holds another role, which suggests there are about 850,000 trustees. But the report concludes that the total number of people serving as trustees is closer to 700,000.
Researchers found that 64 per cent of trustees and 71 per cent of chairs are male, and that 75 per cent of trustees have a household income above the national average.
The most common average age of a trustee board is between 55 and 64, and slightly more than half of trustees – 51 per cent – are retired. Among charities with annual incomes of less than £10,000, the average age of trustee boards increases to between 65 and 74.
More than four out of five (82 per cent) of trustees said they understood their general legal obligations as trustees, but in charities with incomes of less than £10,000 a year, a quarter of trustees said they did not know they had a collective responsibility for all the decisions taken by the board, whether or not they personally contributed to the decision in question.
The areas where most charities reported a lack of skills on their boards were legal, digital, fundraising, marketing and campaigning.
"There is some concern expressed regarding their role and ability in the prevention of fraud and mitigation against external cyber-attack," the report says.
"These factors increase as the size of the charity reduces; one in five trustees in the smallest charities lack confidence in their competence in these respects."
A second report published by the commission today, based on research by Cranfield and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, says that trustees do not take up the support offered to them and the market for this help is not functioning well.
In its recommendations, the main report calls for voluntary sector umbrella bodies, supported by the government and the Charity Commission, to establish a campaign to promote the value of trusteeship to public life, beneficiaries and trustees themselves, and promote greater diversity within charity trustee boards.
It says the government "should play its part in resourcing such a campaign" and it should be match funded by the charity sector and the private sector.
The vast majority of trustees (71 per cent) said they had been recruited through an informal process, the report says.
In response to the finding, the report says: "A national register and regional registers of trustee vacancies should be established and publicised widely."
Helen Stephenson, the chief executive of the commission, said it was heartening that the research showed trustees were positive about the role.
"But there is no room for complacency about the state of trusteeship," she said.
"Trustees do not reflect the communities charities serve. Charities are therefore at risk of missing out on the widest range of skills, experience and perspective at board level."
She warned that uniformity at board level risked creating a culture of group-think, where decisions were never challenged, and said she hoped the findings would be a catalyst for change.