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Great trustees don’t all have degrees

Does the 2027 report show that the face of trusteeship is starting to change?

One of the things I’ve loved doing as Getting on Board’s Interim CEO, has been to review and comment on the draft of 2027’s report Missed Expertise: Mapping Experiences of First-Time Foundation Trustees. The report is based on interviews of first-time trustees of funding organisations, from different backgrounds to the ‘usual suspects’ on such boards.

As I read the draft report, I found myself scribbling notes in the margins of ‘yes’, ‘absolutely’ and ‘this is such an important insight for boards to see’. Because so much of the report resonated with our own research at Getting on Board, including focus groups and surveys with new or potential trustees that went into our How to Become a Charity Trustee: a Practical Guide.

Heralding change

It feels like the conversation has shifted. More funders and other charities want to diversify their boards including to recognise the value of those with lived experience of the issues that charities are dealing with - and it’s great that the face of trusteeship is starting to change, to better reflect our communities and our society.

But there are a lot of boards that haven’t articulated why that’s important or fully grasped the benefits of having a different set of backgrounds around the table.

Such as:

  • The rigour and constructive challenge that comes from a broader range of perspectives and that enhances decision making, as boards have more experience to draw from and assess information more objectively.

  • The deeper understanding we glean of what service users need and the credibility it gives our charities when they see people on our boards that they can relate to.

  • And the vast array of untapped talent and wisdom that could add to the skills and knowledge already present on boards.

And actually, if these benefits don’t drive our motivation to diversify our boards, if we diversify for the sake of it, then we might recruit more diverse trustees. But we’ll probably struggle to retain them.

Hearing the voices

Because if we don’t acknowledge and appreciate the benefits of a diverse board, we won’t work at making sure the range of voices are heard, even if they do get around the table. We stick with the same structures and ways of working that we’ve always had. And as the 2027 report shows, this can mean that new trustees from different backgrounds are left feeling uncomfortable and excluded.

It takes thought and planning, and for many boards some hard questions about how their practices inadvertently shut others out. It’s important to have those conversations before you go out to recruit – and not to put off having them! I think it comes down to being willing to really hear what others have to say. Even when it feels uncomfortable. Even when we haven’t realised before that we might be someone who is more likely to be heard, so need to make a conscious effort to give others the floor.

The best mentor

I was really lucky to have a ‘mentor’ or ‘buddy’ on the board when I became a trustee at the age of 24. It wasn’t a designated role – it was my Dad - as we served as trustees together at our church. Whilst not always ideal to be a trustee alongside close relatives (or for as long as he was in the role) I’m so grateful for that experience.

Although he was a white man, my Dad wasn’t a ‘typical’ trustee when he was first elected. He’d become a trustee when he was in his 20s, and soon after had a young family. He’d left school without a huge number of qualifications and became a BT engineer, which he did for many years as well as a range of manual jobs. He wasn’t familiar with governance jargon, he didn’t use words like ‘strategy’, and his day job didn’t involve scrutinising management accounts, or talking about organisational development.

Promoting lived experience

But he’d had people around him who taught him how to carry out his trustee role, and later Honorary Secretary. He was an amazing trustee. He instinctively understood how to balance long-term vision with immediate priorities, practicalities of building maintenance with care of people, and he had the humility to know that he didn’t have all the answers or the charisma to drive changes on his own. He spent a lot of time listening, but when he spoke it was usually with real insight, wisdom and care. He was a quiet, determined, down-to-earth man who just got on with things but also inspired others in the process.

I didn’t realise growing up that I was seeing trusteeship in action – or that my Dad was such an unconventional role model. I didn’t need to learn that people without degrees could make fantastic trustees, because I’d seen it first-hand.

Trustees that come with professional qualifications or decades of management experience have no greater potential to make excellent trustees than those that don’t. But the 2027 report highlights that it can sometimes feel like they do.

Informing best practice

One of the brilliant things about the report is that it gives some very straightforward pointers to how we can ensure we are welcome to all trustees on the board. Things like openly recruiting for trustees. Giving all new trustees the best chance of ‘hitting the ground running’ by giving them a good induction. Making reimbursement of trustee expenses the default, so individuals don’t feel awkward about having to ask for their train fare to be paid.

I’d encourage you to read the report. Use it to reflect on your own organisation and your board, and to ask yourselves ‘what can we take from this to give all of our trustees the best opportunity to serve our organisation well?’ And to funders – what can you do to help your grantees achieve this? That way, all trustees will have the ability and opportunity to put their unique skills and experience to best use just as my Dad did.

And for my Dad – thank you.

Lynn Cadman is Getting on Board's interim CEO

This article originally appeared in Third Sector


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