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Bemoaning a lack of diversity on the boards that run UK charities, a recent report from the Charity Commission called for a national campaign to encourage a wider range of people to serve as trustees.

It’s clear that a change of tack is needed to recruit a more diverse range of charity trustees. We suggest two possible solutions – charities could create a pipeline for younger people to get involved, or even offer them the chance to shadow existing board members to learn the ropes.

There are more than 167,000 charitable or voluntary organisations regulated by the commission and each is governed by a board of trustees. This means that there are about 700,000 trustees in England and Wales, the vast majority (98%) of whom are volunteers. These unremunerated servants of society are just a part of the one in four people who volunteer regularly in these organisations.

The Charity Commission’s report found that 64% of trustees are male and only 36% are female – rising to 72% and 28% in the largest charities. The average age of a trustee is 60 to 62-years-old – typically about 20 years older than the average person. When it comes to ethnicity, 92% of trustees are white – roughly six percentage points higher than the English and Welsh average.

This lack of board diversity in the charity sector mirrors a similar debate on governance in the private sector.

Questions of recruitment

Trustees are volunteers, and the ways that volunteers want to engage is changing. A new breed of volunteer wants to get involved with short-term, episodic projects. They don’t always want to offer a long-term, regular commitment. They also want high-skilled, meaningful work and they don’t want to volunteer by engaging in unrewarding tasks.

It’s also important to consider what happens inside an
effective board and there are lessons to be learnt from business here. Effective board governance occurs when the dynamics of both control and collaboration are combined appropriately. This means that part of a trustee’s job is to do with control and compliance issues. The more glamorous part is working collaboratively as a board to lead the organisation forward in a strategic manner. The skill of being able to manage both of these forms of governance must not be underestimated.

The Charity Commission report finds that many boards are skillful at the traditional forms of governance, for example monitoring financial performance. They also feel confident to oversee and guide what the organisation does, ensuring that its charitable purposes are met. Yet a significant proportion of charity boards feel that they lack marketing, campaigning, fundraising and digital skills. The report also finds that boards, especially those of smaller organisations, tend to recruit trustees informally through their established networks. But relying on these traditional forms of recruitment is one of the reasons why charity boards are not as diverse as they could be.

A pipeline

An obvious way to enhance trustee diversity appears to be recruiting younger trustees – with the specific skills that boards tend to lack – using new or modified recruitment networks or methods.

But attempting to recruit younger people to serve immediately on a charity board might be a step too far for some would-be trustees. This is because it takes time to gain all the skills required to be an accomplished trustee. Instead, charities should think about developing a pipeline of younger people who are being prepared for trusteeship.

Boards need to consider how younger people can become more involved in episodic projects: without the need for them to take on the onerous control and compliance tasks associated with traditional governance. For example, inviting a young press officer to write compelling, strategic, press releases for a small, under-resourced, charity. This would require working alongside a board at a strategic level, but would not necessarily mean having to join a board immediately.
Opportunities like this could encourage full trusteeship participation at a later date.

Larger charities could also set up shadow boards to fast track younger people to learn the skills of governance earlier in their careers.
A shadow board does not make people secret trustees. Instead, it gives less experienced people an opportunity to follow, or shadow, the governance of an organisation, in an accessible manner.

But a word of warning. Simply recruiting a person to a board because they possess a particular skill, or represent a particular group of people, does not guarantee improved governance. Our personal experience, and other observations, suggest that it can be very challenging for inexperienced, but well-intentioned people, to contribute effectively to a board. This is why a national campaign needs to encourage charities to prepare younger people to become trustees, before they take up board positions in the future.

The Conversation

Neil Fletcher is a trustee of Home-Start (South Yorkshire).

Janet Mack does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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