For many charities, it might be said that there is one main reason to appoint a trustee – for their skills and expertise. This is a poor way of thinking, in my view. I would argue that recruiting people on skills alone, leads to a lack of diversity - both in terms of thinking, and people - on a board. Here are my 10 reasons to recruit a trustee based on a number of different factors, in addition to their skills and expertise.
Please note: I would hate anyone to think I didn’t value having skills and experience on a board. It is super important. Any board can benefit from skills including legal, HR, fundraising, finance, volunteering, etc, etc. (It’s also really important to be able to work out how to use those skills effectively – but that is a story for another blog). My point in this blog is that there are lots of other really good reasons to recruit trustees:
1. For free wisdom and advice
This reason explores the idea of ‘specific skills’ – but stepped up a gear. It’s about having a trustee or trustees who don’t just advise; they roll up their sleeves and do stuff, making practical contributions. This might be drafting contracts, doing exit interviews, and the like. In practice, this is more likely in smaller charities, where trustees will inevitably do more.
2. To get things done!
In the smallest charities, where there are few or no staff, or limited capacity in the staff body, then it is often trustees who makes things happen. During the Covid pandemic, many trustees understandably and necessarily moved into this mode. In some smaller charities, trustees may work in several roles as there are no staff. I know some say this is trustees being volunteers, and not trustees. The reality is that a trustee in a small charity who doesn’t want to roll up their sleeves and do stuff may not be of much use.
3. For knowledge of a community
Trustee boards don’t just need skills; they also need to stay close to their beneficiary groups. Having a trustee (or five) who understand the beneficiary group or are from the beneficiary groups is really important. This could be parents of children with a medical condition, those with a disability, those from a particular demographic or geographic group, or those who are at the coalface of an issue.
4. For diversity and new ideas
For a board to really function well it needs people who will challenge, present alternative ideas, and who will see things in a different way. This is partly why a diversity of ages, genders, ethnicities, backgrounds, abilities is so important – for the breadth of perspectives they bring to board thinking. But beware: there is no point in having a board of trustees with breadth, if the Chair and CEO just stitch everything up anyway or shut down dissenting views. Recruit trustees for diversity, and make sure that diversity takes root in board discussions and is reflected in decision making.
5. For their contacts
I talked to a Director of Fundraising the other day who said they had a trustee for fundraising. I looked at the trustee board and couldn’t see anybody with that expertise. When I pressed them a bit harder, they clarified that the trustee was actually somebody with a lot of good contacts for major gift fundraising. What a valuable trustee! It doesn’t just need to be fundraising; it could be political contacts, contacts in an academic field, or a range of other fields. Trustees who know people are really useful.
6. For the statement that it makes
When I was Chair of the Institute of Fundraising, we recruited a new Director of Fundraising from one of the biggest charities at the time to join the board of trustees. Their predecessor had been very ‘arm’s length’ in their approach. Useful as they were as a trustee, their most valuable role (in my view) was to say to the fundraising community that their charity was now fully engaged with the Institute. There are occasionally situations where recruiting a trustee solely for the statement that their presence makes, is more than justified. This is probably more likely in membership organisations, or where there are communities, or groups, with a close affinity.
7. For bonding organisations together
When two organisations merge, trustees will often be recruited to represent each of the two organisations and demonstrate a balance of the previous two boards. Even where a merger isn’t involved, trustees can be recruited in order to demonstrate the closeness of two organisations. Indeed, some boards will have places reserved for people from partner or designated organisations. The key thing about this kind of arrangement is that the individual knows that their primary allegiance, while in board discussions, is to that charity where they are a trustee. It is not to the partner organisation, or where the trustee’s day job is. These conflicts of interest are not easy to manage, which is the next reason to recruit a trustee.
8. For their independence
While some boards will have places reserved for individuals from particular organisations, that almost inevitably brings with it conflicts of interest. Even with the best will in the world, people who work for one charity, or organisation, can find it hard to put the interests of another charity, where they are a trustee, first. This is why independent trustees can be so important to have on a board; they aren’t pulled in different directions. Indeed, boards like that of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) have places reserved specifically for independent trustees, because the bulk of trustees come from overseas development charities.
9. For upholding democracy
My very first trustee role was at the RSPCA. I stood in a members’ ballot and succeeded in getting enough votes to be elected. Many organisations have wholly or partly elected trustee boards, and it brings a democratic meritocracy to a board: anybody can stand, and anybody can get elected. It does also mean that it can be harder to recruit certain kinds of skills on a board: finance or legal professionals may not want to stand for election, not least because they might not get elected! Nonetheless, democracy can bring both diversity and transparency to a trustee board.
10. For their personal experience
There are some people who would be a benefit to a board just because of their wealth of experience. They may have been a CEO of another charity for 20 years, for example. They could be an academic or practitioner with deep knowledge of a particular area. In short, they bring wisdom and knowledge to a board because of their previous experiences. They may also tick a number of other boxes in the previous categories.
My motivation to set out all these different reasons to recruit a trustee is that diversity is the bedrock on which great high-functioning boards are built. A board made up of nothing but those with specific skills, or just a knowledge of a community is unlikely to be as effective as it could be. Exploring diverse reasons to recruit somebody is as important as considerations of the diversity of somebody’s ideas, their experiences, or their demographic.