Trustees Week: Should we pay trustees?

Dan Corry and Paul Streets go head-to-head on the issue of paying trustees. Have your say in our poll too

Paying trustees is a topic that has frequently been raised in the sector and drawn passionate arguments on both sides. For Trustees Week, we asked Dan Corry of the think tank NPC and Paul Steets of the Lloyds Bank Foundation to offer their arguments for or against. You can give your views as well by voting in our poll or commenting at the bottom of the article. 

Dan Corry: Why paying trustees can help to improve the impact of charities

The ability of a charity to really deliver for its cause or mission often comes down to the strength of its trustees, something we know from working with hundreds of charities here at NPC. Because in some cases assembling the right collection of trustees to make an effective board is much easier if you can pay at least some of them, we at NPC have argued consistently for making it easier for a charity to pay some of its trustees where it feels it can help it improve its impact and produce more social good.

This is not always a popular cry. It goes against the whole sprit of voluntarism, we are told. It is OK for bigger charities, but what happens to smaller ones that can’t afford it? And in any case, should charitable money really go into paying people to sit on boards? All these are decent arguments that each charity will have to consider for itself. But if creating a better board means that the charity will create more impact from the resources it has, then to argue against it is to argue for a less effective sector, and that surely cannot be right.

One key thing that some payment can do is to help boards be more diverse, and diversity is sorely lacking, as recent survey work shows. Too often boards are populated only by the people who have the time and independent wealth to carry out what is an increasingly taxing role. But what about the young person with knowledge about digital who struggles to get time off work? Or the carer whose other responsibilities means they can’t afford to bring their expertise to the table?

More diverse boards ensure the organisation has the right skills for a changing world, avoids the dead hand of "group-think", helps to better identify risk and spark innovation, and can help the charity to stay in touch with those it serves. But our State of the Sector research found that some sector leaders do not think of diversity as a means to achieve impact. As a result, it slips down the list of their priorities. So we have to go beyond general exhortations or admonishments to be better and build the understanding for the case for diversity.

There is more the regulator can do to nudge behaviour too: for example, as NPC is suggesting in our response to the Charity Commission’s consultation on the annual return, asking charities to report on the diversity of their boards could help to drive change in the sector.

But ultimately we also think that allowing organisations more leeway in paying will help to bring in some of those missing voices, and help boards be more effective and the sector have a greater impact as a result. It’s by no means the only answer to building better boards – there is much that needs to be done on retention, for example – and it’s not right for every organisation. But the current obsession with seeing the paying of trustees as something completely against the spirit of the voluntary sector is holding the sector back from including all the voices that charities need to hear.

Dan Corry (@DanRCorry) is chief executive of New Philanthropy Capital

Paul Streets: Volunteerism is at our heart

I can’t understand why the debate about paid trustees is continuing to run.

I’ve worked with the paid vs unpaid, non-executive vs trustee model in both public and voluntary sectors, and seen it in action in the private. From this experience, as well as my experience as voluntary chair of the board at Contact a Family, I remain a passionate advocate for volunteer boards in the voluntary sector – in principle and in practice.

The principle: volunteerism is at our heart and embedded in our roots. Charities are set up by volunteers as a response to a problem seen, and funded by a public that recognises this and so finds the money to help. This selflessness is one of the central values that distinguishes us: from the public sector as a state response to need, and from the private sector as a response to market opportunity, profit and personal gain.

That same volunteerism is translated into action: through volunteers with lived experience in the peer-support networks of large national charities such as MIND or Age UK; as a key element of service delivery at charities such as Azalea – where volunteers establish relationships of trust, rapport and empathy with sex workers in Luton; at London-based Zaccheus 2000, where they act as advocates at social security tribunals; and in volunteer activism for change in large charities such as Amnesty International; or smaller charities, like the entirely volunteer-led I C Change, tackling the government on violence against women.

The connection between volunteerism on the front line and the board table is fundamental to the sector and its credibility to the people who need it, the public who give to it and the politicians who listen to it. Frankly, it puts us on the side of the angels. And that matters in an era of deep cynicism with institutions and authority.

Of course, most charities rely on professional paid staff to make this virtuous circle work. But it's volunteers who provide the "market" test – they’ll quickly walk away if they don’t like what they see.

So now to practice. As I wrote in a piece for Third Sector last year, this "unitary/paid" debate is usually driven by the advocates of large-scale contracting, yet 97 per cent of charities are small and local. As we know from those we fund at the foundation, many of them struggle to find spare cash for anything, let alone paying trustees. Setting aside the core values question, establishing a market for trustees would probably see them priced out of competing, or even more challenged in finding the right people.

And yet these are the organisations that carry the most risk and need the best trustees. For them the payment question is a red herring: irrelevant at best, and at worst a complete distraction. If we care about them, the real campaign we should be launching as a sector is to see trusteeship as a public good, like jury service, and advocating that employers are encouraged to release staff with a statutory requirement for paid time off – subsidised by the state if necessary for smaller employees. This would help to bring the right skills to the table, along with trustees with lived experience to create a blend of values and skills.

So let’s move on from the pointless and elitist debate about paid trustees, relevant to the few, and focus on how we secure and keep volunteer trustees for the many.

Paul Streets (@PaulStreets_) is chief executive of Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales

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