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How can trustees have an impact?

If the average trustee sits on a board for three years and attends four two-hour meetings a year, they will have 24 hours to make a difference. How will you use it?

My colleague Nigel recently designed a trustee workshop called “24 hours to impact”. If your average trustee has a three-year term and attends four two-hour meetings a year, they will have 24 hours to make a difference. Of course Nigel’s argument is that it is nigh on impossible to have any kind of strategic impact in 24 hours. And that brings us to the first of my six tips for trustees on making sure you have an impact.

Being a trustee isn’t just about attending meetings

Sing it loud. If you’re just attending meetings and clocking off between times, it is unlikely that you’ll really be making any kind of significant contribution. 

Put your hand up for sub-committees. Ask how else you can make a difference. Get to know the organisation. Invest in your own development.

Find your passion

Choose well. Some trustees join a board because their neighbour, cousin, friend, colleague asked them – not because they have carefully considered which charities they want to support. You are likely to be more effective if you care about what the charity is achieving. 

Invest your time wisely

A useful trustee for one organisation might be a spare part at the next, so it’s crucial that we know our input will have strategic value. That means having explicit conversations about the charity’s ambitions and how you might help. 

Some charities are brilliantly clear on what they are looking for from their new trustees, but some are not. You can help them think it through and, if you conclude that you are not really what they need, there shouldn’t be any hard feelings.

Keep learning

You. Do. Not. Know. It. All.

Yep, shocking, eh? 

No trustee is the finished article. You may not fully understand the role. You probably won’t know the organisation or its people. You can’t possibly be an expert in all of the areas you’re overseeing (finance, safeguarding, marketing, fundraising, cyber security, property, the list goes on). 

You may not be familiar with the organisation’s field and, even if you are, your knowledge won’t necessarily stay up to date. 

The good news is that learning is interesting, fulfilling, even mind-blowing. And it will do the very thing you set out to do – help you to be a good trustee. Many charities don’t provide trustee learning beyond a cursory induction, so you’re likely to need to drive this yourself.

Don’t be a prat

Don’t let your ego or your pride get the better of you. This job is not about you.

The worst trustees get caught in entrenched positions, take disagreement as a personal attack and are horrible to each other and to staff. 

Be ruthless in your assessment of your own performance. If you’ve let your inner prat out, make it right and do better next time.

Think about leaving before you have even begun

How will the organisation be better or stronger at the end of your term? 

We can easily coast along and find that our tenure has flown by without us really making much of a difference. If you’re going to have a lasting legacy, you need to consider the impact you are looking to have from day one. 

Trustees, are you having real impact?

Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting On Board. This article was first published on the Third Sector website. If you're a trustee and you want to improve your impact, you can make a start by exploring the options in our Trustee Learning Programme .

Photo by Diva Plavalaguna



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