A challenge to charities for Trustees’ Week

November sees Trustees’ Week roll around again. This is the fifth year the week has been observed, and the organisers have an enviable list of big-name supporters including NCVO, the Charity Commission (England & Wales), OSCR and infrastructure bodies across the UK.

According to the Trustees’ Week website, there are around one million trustee positions in England & Wales alone, with some estimates that half of all charities have at least one trustee vacancy. Two thirds of trustees are at least 50 years old with a mere 0.5 per cent of trustees are aged 18-24 (despite the fact that this age group makes up 12 per cent of the population). There are often articles such as this one from The Guardian in 2013 that provide advice to charities on how to diversify their boards and/or meet the challenges of recruiting new trustees. However, when (if ever) do senior managers in organisations turn to their volunteer managers for advice on trustee recruitment? In my experience the answer to that question is: almost never.

Despite all the great work of campaigns like Trustees’ Week, many people (often very senior people in the sector) still don’t see trustees as volunteers. Often the reasoning is that trustees couldn’t really be volunteers because they hold important, responsible positions. After all, volunteers are well-meaning amateurs there to make the tea, stuff the envelopes and do the low-skilled, menial work. Volunteers can’t be trusted with confidential information or given any real responsibility; so trustees simply can’t be volunteers, can they?

Some organisations acknowledge that trustees are volunteers, but assume this is what causes poor governance, which in turn leads to a lack of diversity and problems recruiting new trustees. Their argument is that, because volunteers are well-meaning amateurs, they can’t really grasp the complexity of the governance role or meet its demands. So their solution is to pay people to sit on charity boards because, as we all know, the better-paid someone is, the more competent and reliable they are.

So, as Trustees’ Week approaches, I’d like to see two things happen:

1. Senior charity managers asking their volunteer managers for advice on board recruitment and diversity

2. Volunteer managers offering advice to their senior managers on volunteer recruitment and diversity, and how they can help with governance recruitment

You see volunteer managers deal with the reality of recruiting a diverse range of people into demanding and responsible roles every day. They have the skills and knowledge to make a real contribution to meeting the governance challenges the sector faces. They talk about generational issues and age diversity in recruitment when they network. They are the experts that can really help solve the sector’s trustee recruitment challenges.

Despite all the articles & blogs that have been written, and all the advice given to charities by governance experts, the situation isn’t changing for the better. So, this Trustees’ Week, let’s make a change and talk to the experts in volunteer engagement: volunteer managers.

PS 5 November is International Volunteer Managers Day. What better way to acknowledge our volunteer managers than by giving them the opportunity to help solve our governance problems?

3 Responses to “A challenge to charities for Trustees’ Week”

  1. peter hepburn

    Well done, Rob, at making my blood boil. When I read: ‘volunteers are well-meaning amateurs’ I think: ‘No. Volunteers are people, bringing the wide range of skills and experiences that other people bring.’
    I’m reminded of a volunteer I met at one of Cats Protection’s Adoption Centres. She told me that she volunteered there 3 days each week. ‘Wow’, said I ‘and what do you do the rest of the week?’ ‘I’m a lawyer, working in my own practice. I love the legal work and also it funds me to do what I like, volunteering here.’

    We have provided training at all levels for volunteer management, including the trustees and myself (CEO) as we all, directly or indirectly, manage volunteers. So happy Volunteer Managers’ Day to all Trustees who are both volunteers and, often, volunteer managers as well.

    • Rob Jackson

      I was being sarcastic with that remark about well meaning amateurs Peter so sorry for boiling the blood.

  2. IAS2011

    Dear Peter, I think that Rob was being facetious in his comments where he said “volunteers are well-meaning amateurs there to make the tea, stuff the envelopes and do the low-skilled, menial work”. The fact is, like you (Peter) I do feel that employers and business minds still see a ‘volunteer’ as one of the description we have challenged. How wrong they are.

    Surely, we all understand that a volunteer is many times someone who stems from a position of being passionate about a community-related issue, and can stem from the likes of a target-driven private sector company or a socially motivated organisation. Such qualities and skills are worthy of being a trustee. However, I sense that the average public belief is that a trustee is even more of an ‘established’ figure – one who is overwhelming in experience within organisations.

    When I see such positions advertised, even with my vast experience in the private sector and having transferred my passion for community development into the Charity sector, I still feel Charities should do more to highlight the qualities of a trustee and understand that so many of us feel excluded from such a position because the lack of promotion of what qualities are needed rather than just a long-term of high level skills.


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