5 Excuses for Not Having Young Trustees

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by Cordelia Sampson, Chair of Trustees at Edinburgh Students' Charities Appeal


We are an incredible and diverse sector. We do amazing things. We save lives, we create opportunities, and we develop leaders, but we CAN be better. We have a wide variety of purposes and incomes ranging from a few thousand pounds to tens of millions. But, with a couple of things in common, we ALL have trustees and we can all be better. Perhaps many of us can be better in one way in particular.

Research shows that many charities have something else in common - they don't have any young trustees which, for the purposes of this blog, means under 27.

I became Chair of Trustees at Edinburgh Students' Charities Appeal (known as ESCA) almost 3 years ago, aged 24. Since then, I have attended a lot of events for trustees and it's impossible not to notice the absence of other young people. The way I have been treated and spoken to at these events only reinforced my feeling that young people aren't seen as potential trustees. Even when attending an event SPECIFICALLY for chairs of trustees, most people assumed I was a member of staff.

The average age of trustees in the UK increased from 57 in 2010 (1) to 61 in 2017 (2) and the number of trustees over 60 increased from 42% in 2005 (3) to 67% in 2012 (4).

The need to increase the number of young trustees was raised in 2001 by NCVO (5). Since then it has been regularly advocated for by some of the most prominent organisations in the charity sector, and everyone I've spoken to about the issue has agreed that it needs to change. But nothing has.

So I started thinking about WHY nothing has changed. If you are aware of the benefits of young trustees and understand why it's important to involve them, what's stopping you? What excuses are you using for not having young trustees? Are any of them valid?

I don't believe so. And I hope that by going through some of these excuses, using research as well as my own journey, you will realise that actually, there is no excuse for not involving young people at board level. And given that 2018 was the year of Young People in Scotland, it seems like the perfect opportunity to initiate genuine action for change.

 

1. The first and most obvious excuse. Young people don't have enough skills, knowledge or experience.

They DO, it's just not the same as that of existing board members. But that's a good thing.

Let me tell you a little about my journey at ESCA. I became chair somewhat unexpectedly - our previous chair stepped down with very little notice and I was appointed interim chair, despite being the youngest trustee. However about a week later, our then only member of staff handed her notice in, as she moved on to the next stage in her career.

This meant I had to lead recruitment, induction and line management of new staff having never had a job myself. When I emailed the board informing them of the resignation, I got replies from less than half of the board. Safe to say I felt a little out of my depth. But, I knew the organisation and I knew what I thought needed to change. So I did a lot of googling about staff management, charity governance and accounts and got stuck in.

Since I became chair, we have increased the number of young people on our board, employed an additional member of staff, increased the annual amount raised for charity, increased the size of our student committee, produced our first organisation risk register, written our first set of volunteer policies and restructured our annual report.

It has been a steep learning curve, but one that I and our other young trustees have relished, partly because of our acute awareness that we don't know all the answers.

And that's the thing about young trustees, they will ask questions other people won't even though others are often sitting there thinking the same thing but feeling unable to ask because of their 20 plus years of experience. By asking these questions, they will certainly improve the understanding of the whole board, and will challenge long-standing beliefs - this leads to innovation and change, which can only be a good thing.

 

2. Young people aren't interested

My personal favourite - as president of ESCA's student committee, I spent over 20 hours a week volunteering whilst in the final year of my degree. I wasn't a trustee. but I did attend the 'student part' of trustee meetings. The trustees constantly said, we've got to do the boring stuff now when referring to the trustee business, it was always framed as though it was of no interest to the volunteers.

I'm not sure where this reasoning comes from, most of your organisations probably have young volunteers, If they're volunteering, they ARE interested in your charity and if they're interested in your charity, the chances are. they might be interested in having a say at board level. But they probably don't even know it's an option.

I've heard people say things like, "young people would find board meetings boring". Again, I don't know where this comes from. Do you find board meetings boring? If not, why do you assume young people will? Over 90% of trustees find the role personally rewarding and regard it as important or very important to them (2). If young people are given a chance, they will find this too.

For a large proportion of charities, young people are the beneficiaries - how can they claim they're not interested? The Scottish Seabird Centre recently tried to recruit a young trustee and they had so many quality applications they ended up appointing two (2). Research by Young Charity Trustees found that, once they understood the role, 85% of young people interviewed would consider becoming a trustee (7).

 

3. We can’t find any

My first challenge to this is…where are you looking? 71% of trustees say they were recruited through being asked directly by an existing trustee (2) and over 90% of charities recruit most of their board through word of mouth and existing networks (8).  So, it’s not particularly surprising that they can’t find young trustees. If you are only speaking to people like you, then you will only find people like you.

But this practice is worrying. Whether or not your organisation has staff, trustees are quite probably THE most important and influential individuals in a charity. And yet, much more time and effort is put in to recruiting (even junior) staff. I doubt many (if any) of you would even think about appointing a member of staff without at least seeing their CV and holding an interview. And I suspect most wouldn’t consider not advertising a role.

The next excuse is probably that you don’t know where to advertise. Luckily, the International Voluntary Service has a new project, the Year of the Young Trustee. You can sign their pledge to recruit one young trustee in the next twelve months. They will advertise your vacancy and send it out to their database of young people who want to be trustees.

 

4. It will take too much time and energy to support them

I’ve read a lot of advice on how to support young trustees and one thing seems pretty obvious to me.The things you should or need to do to support young trustees, are things you should be doing to support ALL trustees anyway.

Provide them with a proper induction. At least 30% of charities offer NO induction (8). I don’t know why because I don’t think anyone would expect a new member of staff to just get started without an induction. Regardless of how much experience someone has, whether as a trustee or in business, they haven’t been a trustee at YOUR organisation. Businesses are different to charities, and every charity is unique, so if you want your trustees to add anything, then you need to give them the necessary information and guidance.

Ensure they understand the meeting papers – this should happen routinely, but there is too often an assumption that everyone understands everything. Reviewing whether board papers are clear and easy to interpret will almost certainly improve all trustees contributions.

Conduct a skills audit and organise training for trustees – SCVO found that only 65% of participants felt confident in their skills as a trustee (9). The House of Lords recently published a report which stated that induction and ongoing development is “essential for charity trustees in order for the sector to work effectively” because “trustees need to feel confident and well-informed in order to provide strategic direction, oversight and challenge” (10).

I completely understand that charities have limited capacity, but, investing in the development of trustees of all ages will benefit the entire organisation, ensure trustees remain engaged and feel they are able to contribute for longer.

 

5. Young people don’t have time

I think this is mostly about the fact that young people might have jobs, so don’t have as much free time as a typical retired trustee. But, unless your entire board is retired (and even then), every single board member will have some other commitments which have to be worked around. It’s no different with young people, and in fact, some companies will allow people to take paid time out of work to fulfil a trustee role.

Equally, contrary to popular belief, young people don’t devote all their free time to frivolous pursuits. For many, the volunteering they do, is an integral and important part of their free time. And there are statistics to reflect this, in the 2017 Scotland Giving Survey (11) 94% of 16 to 24 year olds had engaged in charitable activity in the last year, the same percentage as those over 65 and more than people aged 45 to 64. And 16 to 24 year olds were the MOST likely to have volunteered out of all age groups.

 

Young people can do it, we want to do it, we have the time and skills to do it and WE ARE READY.

So, my final message is not combative or critical. It’s not a call to action or a demand. It’s a simple fact. We have an opportunity. WE CAN BE BETTER.

We can reject the excuses of the past and build diverse boards that truly represent our society, or we can continue down a path towards irrelevance. We can build boards based on a mix of skills and perspectives, or we can perpetuate the myth that says the only measure of experience is how many decades you’ve lived. We can be better.

We can sign up to the IVS year of the young trustee and remind ourselves that good leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders. Then we can be better.

When age, and gender, and race, and faith, and disability are no longer barriers to participation in our boards, we can and we will be better.

 

  1. Charity Commission, A Breath of Fresh Air, 2010 LINK
  2. Charity Commission, Taken on Trust, 2017 LINK
  3. Charity Commission, Start as you mean to go on: Trustee recruitment & induction, 2005 LINK
  4. Charity Commission, Statistics, 2012 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-20096437
  5. NCVO & Akpeki T, Involving Young People (Guide to Board Development), 2001 LINK
  6. http://thirdforcenews.org.uk/tfn-news/leading-conservation-charity-recruits-young-trustees
  7. Young Charity Trustees, Young, Gifted &…a Charity Trustee?, 2013 LINK
  8. Getting on Board, The looming crisis in trustee recruitment, 2017 LINK
  9. SCVO, Trustees Matter, 2017 LINK
  10. Select Committee on Charities, Stronger charities for a stronger society, 2017 (P.27) LINK
  11. CAF, Scotland Giving Survey, 2017 LINK