The Secret to a Successful Trustee Board

How do you define an effective trustee board? Is it one that’s stacked with people who have 20+ years of experience in the sector? Or maybe it’s about keeping your numbers small to ensure there’s no push back or conflict—that everyone is always on the same page. In theory, that sounds like the perfect set up, but sameness and a time-worn understanding of the sector aren’t always in your best interest. At least not when everyone on your board brings the same experiences to the table.

The truth is that a thriving trustee board doesn’t happen on accident—it’s a byproduct of strategic thinking and recruiting not just the right people, but the right balance of expertise. You want people from different backgrounds, with different experience levels so you can engage in meaningful debate and challenge the way things function. That way, you ensure you’re moving forward, not getting stuck in the past.

And most importantly, it’s about diversity.

But how do you go about championing that diversity? It starts with recruitment and asking yourself the difficult questions.

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What does it really mean to be a trustee?

In its simplest definition, a trustee board is an elected group of individuals who are responsible for setting the strategic direction of a non-profit. They oversee things like finances and organisational objectives, making sure the charity is reaching the goals it sets out for itself.

But in a larger sense, everything they do is for the benefit of the public—people from a whole host of different socioeconomic backgrounds, cultures and age groups. So if your trustee board consists solely of middle-class white men in their late 50s, you’re missing a trick. You’re not representing the full breadth of the people you’re supporting.

Luckily, more and more charities are striving to be inclusive when it comes to trustee recruitment. Take, for example, Age UK, who’ve adapted their recruitment strategy to ensure a more diverse range of candidates is considered, which involves not asking for a personal statement or CV when applicants first apply to avoid putting people off with the criteria.

“ We are looking to innovate as quite a few other charities are doing, mainly in order to fulfil Age UK’s own commitment to equality and diversity, but also recognising the importance of diversity in the Charity Governance Code. We believe that there are many talented people out there who could make great trustees but who may not be confident that their skills and experience would be welcomed and wanted. ”

Steph Harland, Chief Executive of Age UK

It’s a tricky issue, but not an impossible one. Of course, we’re not saying to hire candidates just for diversity’s sake. They still need to bring the right skills and insight to the board. But it’s about avoiding a like-for-like recruitment strategy and shaping the hiring process in a way that encourages a wider range of people to apply.

attracting more diversity to your trustee board

To get started, you need to look inwards

In 2017, the Charity Commission’s ‘Taken on Trust’ report exposed an overwhelming lack of diversity on UK trustee boards, with women only representing one-third of trustees. And to make matters even more shocking, 92% of those trustees were white and the average age of board members was 55-64 years old.

The fact is that our trustee boards need to represent the communities they serve in order to stay relevant. So, take a look at the people you’ve historically hired on your trustee board. Do they fall into the same pattern? Or are you already making more of an effort to bring in people who can engage in a constructive challenge?

To change the status quo, you need to honestly assess how you’re tackling the issue of diversity, and much of that starts at the trustee level.

ex-offender working in charity

Then decide what your board is missing

There’s no such thing as an ‘ideal charity board’. It’s specific to your organisation, and what your charity needs will change over time. It’s often tempting to recruit on a like-for-like basis, especially when you’re looking to fill a role that’s just become vacant. But a trustee vacancy is an opportunity to re-evaluate those needs.

“ As you look objectively at your charity you can also gauge how inclusive you are as an organisation or how that might appear from an outside perspective. What images and language do you use? How welcoming and accessible does your charity seem to someone outside? You can tackle diversity more effectively by addressing inclusion from the outset. ”

How to Recruit Trustees for Your Charity: A Practical Guide, Getting on Board

Here’s where an outside perspective could be useful. Many charities recruit for trustees from other sectors because it helps break down different institutional and conformation biases you may not have been aware your board had.

But what do we mean by confirmation bias? It’s the idea that you subconsciously search for info and research that supports the results you want to see. You want a certain idea or concept to be true, so you reject anything that doesn’t support that bias. But an outside perspective can poke holes in those biases and shine a light on new opportunities you may not have previously considered.

outside perspectives - successful trustee board

What to include in your trustee advert

Your advert is not just a job description—it’s a window into your charity. It should accurately represent the mission and vision of your organisation, appealing to the widest possible range of candidates.

In order to do that, you need to strike a delicate balance between captivating candidates with your cause and not overwhelming them with too much detail. Of course, don’t leave out necessary details, but also don’t jam-pack the advert with pages and pages of information.

If you’re not sure what information is important to candidates, try sticking to these key elements:

  • What your charity does – Don’t assume this is immediately clear to everyone. This doesn’t need to be in-depth, just a sentence or two about what you do, who you support and why your work is important.
  • Skills and experience you’re looking for – And why you’re looking for them. This will help candidates determine if they’re suitable for the role, even if you haven’t explicitly asked for someone from their profession. Make sure you’re clear about whether or not candidates need to meet some or all of the criteria.
  • What the role entails – Anyone who hasn’t worked as a trustee before might not know what the role consists of. Describe the role in a way that makes sense to your audience.
  • Time commitments – Can the role be done remotely? If so, this opens it up to a wider range of candidates. Not everyone can meet at 2 pm on a Wednesday, so being transparent about this from the beginning helps weed out unsuitable candidates.

Ultimately, it’s all about being open-minded and considering applicants who may lack the experience but have the skills you need. There’s still a long way to go in terms of achieving the diversity the charity sector so desperately needs but starting with your governing board is a step in the right direction.

Think you’re ready to start recruiting for your next trustee? Get in touch with one of our account managers today.

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About the author

Stephanie Dotto

Content & SEO Lead at CharityJob. Lover of fiction, films and food. In a previous life, she was a music and tourism journalist. When she’s not writing and editing blog content, she is working on her novel.