Time to pay trustees

There have been calls for charities to pay board members to improve both diversity and professionalism in the sector. Liam Kay reports

For a sector that prides itself on its connection to communities all over the country, the leadership of the charity sector is startlingly white, male, old and middle-class. Research by the Charity Commission in 2017 showed that 92 per cent of trustees were white, older and with above-average education and income, and men outnumbered women two to one. The average age of a trustee was between 55 and 64, with more than half of all trustees being retirees.

One idea has repeatedly cropped up as a way of attracting people from low-income backgrounds, ethnic minorities and younger people: paying trustees. But the idea is controversial, with many saying it undermines the voluntary ethos.

Charities are already legally able to pay trustees if they are allowed to by their constitutions and the Charity Commission agrees. But generally it is rare. The issue has been raised repeatedly in recent years, such as in a 2012 review of the Charities Act 2006 by the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson, which recommended an automatic right for charities with incomes above £1m to pay their trustees.

Lucy Caldicott, founder of Change Out, which campaigns for more representative leadership in charities at all levels, recently spoke at the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Charities and Volunteering, where she raised the issue of paying trustees. She says trustee payments could improve the sector’s diversity problem, but she would first like to see more research, especially to establish if offering payment to people from poorer backgrounds and under-represented groups would actually work.

"For people who are early on in their careers, perhaps not paid very much and in quite precarious contract situations, giving up half of a working day is hard," Caldicott says. "You need to go to the next step of considering what would change that situation for that person. I would like to see more information. If we lack certain types of people, I’d be interested to see what the barriers are."

Tesse Akpeki, lead governance consultant at the law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite, says that any charity considering payments to trustees to improve diversity at board level needs to know "the kind of diversity it wants, why it wants that kind of diversity and how it is going to attract that kind of diversity" before introducing the policy.

But she adds that charities must first ensure they offer better support to trustees from under-represented backgrounds. "I have seen people get diverse boards and then not support people to either bring their best to the table, to be acknowledged or recognised for what they can bring, or to train them and support them so they can be the best trustee they can," Akpeki says. "Paying people in that culture will not get a better result."

It has also been argued that offering payment might attract more highly skilled or committed board members. Ros Oakley, chief executive of the Association of Chairs, says paying trustees is not necessarily a guarantee of increased professionalism and more work is needed to understand whe­ther it would actually improve governance.

She says: "We believe the focus should be on trustees having the right attitude, competence and skills."

Caldicott is also a councillor in Lambeth, south London, and says that paying an allowance is commonplace in local government to reflect the amount of work and dedication required to do the job. She says that a change in mindset might be required to move away from the idea that all trustee roles should be voluntary to one accepting allowances in order to encourage people with lived experience or specialist knowledge to join boards.

"When you are in a bubble of middle-classness, it is hard to break yourself out and think what it is like for people who are not like you," she says. "If you do get yourself out of your bubble, think about how to encourage people who have not had the benefit of high earnings to get involved in charities, and how to get those voices in decision-making positions. I’m not sure it’s right to expect them to do that for free."

Recruitment focus

Penny Wilson, chief executive of Getting on Board, a charity that helps people with board-level volunteering, says she believes that the most effective way to broaden the diversity of the sector might be to focus more on how trustees are recruited. She says that 90 per cent of charities recruit trustees by word of mouth, which inevitably leads to a lack of diversity in the ranks.

She adds that if a charity is thinking of paying people for whom trusteeship "isn’t otherwise an option because of practical barriers", charities should consider how they could remove those barriers first before introducing payments. Measures could include not holding trustee meetings during office hours, which excludes many younger people from joining because they are "less likely to have the same level of flexibility in their jobs as older people".

Charities could also be more proactive in terms of making out-of-pocket expenses available, such as travel or childcare expen­ses, Wilson says.

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