'Someone I know' is not good enough any more

Experts say it takes planning and honesty with potential candidates if you want to recruit diverse trustees with a good balance of skills. Patrick McCurry canvasses opinion on how to broaden your board

Making sure a trustee board is fresh and has the right combination of skills, experience and backgrounds can be a major challenge for voluntary organisations.

It can be hard to know where to find new board members, outside the usual personal networks of senior staff or existing trustees. But the risk in recruiting purely from existing networks is that boards will not gain diversity and a spread of skills.

Derek Twine, the former chief executive of the Scout Association and chair of the charity chief executives body Acevo's recent governance commission, believes that many charities, especially smaller ones, are wary about recruiting outside their usual pool of candidates.

"It's not that they don't want to, but they lack confidence about how to recruit in a more open way," he says. "So they resort to the 'someone I know' syndrome."

A key element of the process, he argues, is for a charity's board and senior people to reflect on how they want the organisation to develop in the next three to five years. From this process they can draw up a list of trustee skills and experience that will be needed to support this plan.

Too many charities still fail to insist on getting the right candidates to join the board, says governance consultant Stella Smith. "Charities often take whoever they can get because they think nobody will want to be a trustee," she says. In fact, she argues, trustees will come forward if the charity can communicate that they will be valued and will make a difference.

It is also important to be completely honest with candidates about what their role will involve, says Smith. This includes saying how often meetings will be held and when they will take place, how many hours the trustee will be expected to spend on charity business each month and whether they will be expected to sit on any sub-committees.

"The big problem is that charities don't aim high enough or invest enough time in the recruitment process," says Janet Thorne, chief executive of the charity Reach, which runs the TrusteeWorks trustee brokerage service. "It's about being clear what the role is, communicating the value of the charity's work and explaining how trustees can make a difference," she says.

There are a number of avenues charities can explore to widen their pool of candidates, according to Twine. For example, very small charities might want to consider placing adverts in local newsagents, but larger ones might want to consider placing them in publications read by accountants or lawyers.

Twine says: "Little things can go a long way. So it could simply be using a neighbour's network of contacts rather than someone at the charity, or talking to other charities in the area about people they might recommend."

To get access to candidates with particular skills, it is worth finding out which are the large employers in that field, says Smith. "Many big employers have internal newsletters and are often open to charities including an appeal for potential trustees," she says. Using an external agency to help with recruitment is another possibility.

Thorne says good candidates are out there but charities might not feel confident about finding them. Agencies such as TrusteeWorks, which now offers its service free to small and medium-sized charities, can help fill the gaps on boards, she says.

Even when a candidate is appointed, it is surprising how many charities fail to put an adequate induction process in place, she says: "A proper process is essential to help the new trustee feel confident about the role and welcome in the organisation."



The charity Beating Bowel Cancer used an external agency to help it recruit trustees with a broader range of skills.

The charity's chief executive, Mark Flannagan, says it wanted to move from being a small to a medium-sized charity and knew that it would need to attract some new candidates.

It asked Trustees Unlimited to help recruit two additional trustees to its existing six-strong board, but ended up recruiting five more because there were so many good candidates, according to Flannagan.

He says that many charities draw up a list of skills they want to see on their boards, but it is hard to actually find and recruit candidates that have them.

The process led to the appointment of trustees with specialist skills in finance, consulting, health and pharmaceuticals. The previously all-male board was also broadened to include female members.

"One of the new trustees is a former charity chief executive and another has become head of another charity since becoming a trustee with us, which means I can get some insightful input on our own charity," says Flannagan.

He says that using Trustees Unlimited was not disproportionately expensive and it was funded from the charity's reserves: "We decided that we wanted to invest in this process in order to expand our charity's work."


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