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Why should charities diversify their trustee boards?

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 10 Nov 2022

Charity professional Penny Wilson outlines the best practice in finding trustees to help your organisation thrive – it all starts with reaching beyond your own networks, she says.

Charities are struggling to find the trustees they need, and most UK adults don't know what a trustee is or how to become one. These are a few of the blockers that charities face when recruiting trustees, says Penny Wilson, CEO of Getting on Board, a small national charity that aims to change the face of trusteeship.

“The most common way trustees are recruited is through word-of-mouth, and that means 75% of charities say they struggle to find the trustees that they need, so it’s not really working very well,” Wilson says. “The way that it should happen is much like staff recruitment. It should be a very slick, professional, open recruitment process with an advertising plan to reach the types of people you would like to apply.”

People don’t know they would make a good trustee

Wilson says there are blockers on both sides when it comes to trustee recruitment. On the applicant side, not a lot of people know what trusteeship involves, and even those who are aware of what the role involves tend to believe it’s reserved for a certain demographic.

“Most people think it’s for retired professionals, which isn’t true but that’s the perception we’re battling against. And even if someone has decided they want to become a trustee, then they don’t know how to apply because only 10% of vacancies are ever advertised.

“This is an enormous barrier because applicants may live in an area where there are no vacancies advertised,” explains Wilson.

It isn’t always helpful even when charities do advertise their trustee roles because they can be dull and legalistic. “They should be there to inspire, not scare the pants off people with legalistic content,” she adds.

Wilson also believes diversifying the board of trustees for an organisation is vital to its success – it brings a valuable range of views from different lived experiences, which recruiting from the same pool of talent cannot supply.

What benefits can diverse boards bring?

It’s good governance: If you’re on a trustee board where everybody agrees with everybody else, then that isn’t good governance. “We’re there to debate, disagree, have different perspectives and then reach what we think is the best way forward for the organisation,” she says.

Understanding your service users: This is particularly a benefit if your charity is people-facing. For example, if you’re running a food bank and everybody on the board is comfortably off, or has never been in food poverty or lived in a low-income household, then the board is going to be quite divorced from the needs of its service users. This is a big argument for having people on the board with lived experience of what the organisation is trying to achieve.

Access to talent: At the moment most UK adults simply don’t know what a trustee is, or that they can be one. This is hundreds of thousands of people that are being missed out on who are potential trustees. “That’s just a bonkers own goal that wouldn’t be too difficult to fix,” Wilson adds.

Credibility: Wilson says funders are starting to ask about this one “in terms of having credibility with your own communities if you’re a locally based organisation. It’s really important that people see that your organisation’s top leadership reflects the communities that you’re supporting.”

When people think ‘we must diversify our boards’, they think of the moral case for diversity – that it’s morally wrong that their boards are divorced from the communities they serve and don’t reflect UK society. “But actually, the strongest reason I think to diversify your board is to be better at your work and for the charity to do a better job,” says Wilson. “And this is not to criticise current trustees. I want to appeal to the ambition of current trustees that actually we’re missing out on all this input that would supercharge the charity sector.”

Useful information

To hear more top tips on how to improve your charity’s trustee recruitment and induction practices, join Wilson and other charity sector professionals on 16 November 2022 for a free webinar hosted by ICAEW.

ICAEW also provides free online trustee training via a learning space where you can explore the knowledge and skills required to be an effective charity trustee through a range of reading materials, video recordings and reflective activities.

ICAEW Volunteers is a dedicated website to connect charities with finance professionals looking for volunteer roles. The service is free for all not-for-profit organisations and volunteers to use.

ICAEW’s new Charity Community brings together tools, insights and resources for finance professionals and charity volunteers.

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