Updated: Sep 22
Srabani Sen, OBE, is the former chair of trustees at ActionAid UK and The Winch. She is also CEO and Founder of Full Colour, an organisation dedicated to diverse and inclusive leadership.
Why do you volunteer as a charity trustee?
The reason I do board roles and trustee roles is because I, in common with a lot of people, want to volunteer, make contributions to my community, and improve the world we live in.
I could volunteer in a front-line role, and a lot of those roles really appeal to me. But I also know from my experience in the charity sector for over 30 years that boards are always crying out for people who understand governance, strategy, and have lived experience of charity leadership.
I take on board roles as opposed to running a marathon to raise money, or volunteering in some other way because it feels like the way I can contribute in the most useful way to the causes I care about the most.
I asked myself ‘what’s the best way I can serve?’ and trusteeship was the answer. It's about adding the most value.
What have you gained from becoming a charity trustee?
I’ve served on boards for almost 28 years. Not a day goes by where I don’t learn something new. I am constantly learning, constantly evolving. One of the amazing personal benefits of being on a board is how it constantly gives you opportunities and experiences which help you grow, become a better leader, learn about new issues, learn new skills.
I don’t think I could quantify how much I’ve learned and the experience I’ve gained. I’ll always be very grateful for every board opportunity I’ve had because every one I’ve had has taught me so much.
Every time you learn something and then move on to another board after you’ve completed your term as a trustee, you can take that with you and share it with the next charity.
I’ve served on boards for almost 28 years. Not a day goes by where I don’t learn something new.
How would you describe your journey as a trustee?
I was in my mid to late twenties when I took on my first board role. At that age, I wasn’t particularly senior. It turbo-charged my learning about how to work in a senior context.
Being a charity trustee showed me what leadership is, how you do it when you’re not directly in control of operational functions. It taught me the difference between leadership and management. It taught me really practical skills like finance skills and how to manage strategically, how to define, assess and manage risk, plus really practical things around good governance, strategic thinking. It gave me opportunities to flex the strategic muscles in my brain right away. I would have waited five or ten years to get that level of experience in my day job.
Being a trustee made me infinitely better at my day job.
Why should people consider becoming charity trustees?
If you’re thinking about becoming a trustee, even if you haven’t done it before, even if you’re very senior now, there’s always something you can learn. No two boards are the same. Why wouldn’t you seize that opportunity? I strongly encourage anybody who’s interested in becoming a charity trustee to give it a go
When I took on my first board roles, at that stage in my career I simply would not have been involved in managing organisational risk. I wasn’t involved in setting and developing organisation-wide strategy. I was nowhere near the level of complexity of learning about how to oversee organisational finance. Understanding the way finances operate across a whole organisation, I just wouldn’t have had a clue. It was a whirlwind of learning, and I spent some time trying to figure out which way was up. But how rewarding it was. I gained huge amounts of confidence. That confidence flowed through into other areas of my life.
Is there anything that surprised you about becoming a trustee?
Something that surprised me - when an organisation is going through tough times, how some board members really lean in. When you consider these are voluntary roles, the amount of time and energy that some trustees plough into organisations just fills me with awe and enormous gratitude and humility. It’s phenomenal.
But I am also disappointed by the number of trustees who coast. They will take on a trustee role without understanding their governance responsibilities, or reading the board papers. If you’re taking on a board role, only do it if you’re genuinely committed. There is real work involved, even though it’s not paid. At the very least, you owe it to the charity to turn up and read the papers.
If you’re taking on a board role, only do it if you’re genuinely committed.
What would you like to change about the world of charity boards?
The lack of diversity on charity boards is disappointing. When you consider that the charity sector is a values-driven sector, it’s shocking that boards are so homogenous. 92% of trustees are white (Source: Taken on Trust, 2017), and only 6% of charity CEOs are from a BAME background (Source: ACEVO, 2019). I’m baffled by that.
When I talk to some boards, it’s almost like there’s a choice to be made between diversity and skills, between getting the right person and getting a person of colour on the board. That’s just not true. There are many, many diverse people who are skilled and knowledgeable who would add great value to boards. Also, there is a ton of evidence that diverse leadership teams make better decisions, are better at problem-solving, and that they head up much more successful organisations.
Diversity equals being better at what you do.
The work that we’re doing in the charity sector supports some of the most vulnerable, disadvantaged communities on the planet. Surely of all sectors, we need to have diversity so we are making the best decisions, getting better at problem solving, getting the best people. If we are driven by our mission, then don’t the people that benefit from that mission deserve the best? That means having a diverse team.
Do you have any tips for how to be an effective trustee?
So many! Before you become a trustee, if you’re a first-time trustee, talk to a few people who’ve already done it. You will hear all kinds of useful tips, and how to manage your own expectations.
Read all the guidance The charity commission’s essential trustee guide is great. It sets out your role and legal responsibilities very clearly.
Really understand what your charity does and how it does it. If you’re already in a trustee position, this is the best advice I can give. Get your head around what services you deliver, how you deliver them, how it compares with other organisations. If you don’t understand exactly what your organisation does and how you do it, you can’t engage with the broader questions of finance and service delivery.
Understand the difference between strategic and operational work. Too many boards diverge into operational discussions which are not their territory. It may feel safer, but our job is to stay in strategic headspace. What strategic means will be very different for an organisation based in one particular borough doing local work compared with a massive national charity. Precisely what is operational and what is strategic will vary, but you need to understand the difference. Stick to and have strategic conversations.
Read the papers! Properly! Make sure you’ve understood and thought through the issues so you can engage in a thoughtful way before the meeting.
What qualities does a great trustee have?
Listen carefully, and be prepared to change your mind based on what other people around the board table have said. Intellectual flexibility is key. The board members that are the most unhelpful are the ones that come in with a fixed mind-view.
Being a good board member is as much about listening as it is about doing things.
Be prepared to change your mind, but also know when to stick to your guns. You want to avoid groupthink. The best trustees I’ve worked with know when to bend and when to hold firm.