On Tuesday 21 April, I had the opportunity to find out more about becoming a trustee at a free participatory workshop led by Reach and hosted by Team London and Greater London Volunteering.
On a lovely crisp sunny day overlooking the banks of the River Thames, delegates were ushered into one of the committee rooms at City Hall to hear from TrusteeWorks Manager, Luke Strachan and Reach CEO, Janet Thorne.
After a brief introduction by Team London’s Stephanie Kamin and GLV’s James Banks, Luke and Janet began their presentation on “An Introduction to Trusteeship with Insights into governance in the voluntary sector” which covered:
Luke explained that 50% of Reach’s work was based on trustees. With an estimated 169,000 charities in the UK and Wales, research says about 48% of charities have a vacancy on their board and that less than 5% of people are aware of trusteeship as a way to support a charity. How good charities are depends on the board who set the tone and culture. The board makes sure the charity is steering in the right direction, being true to why it was set up in the first place, and that it is continuing to be sustainable.
“Trustees are reliant on the CEO giving them the relevant information on the company,” added Janet. She also made the point that the role can really vary: “If it’s a small organisation, you may well be expected to do more hands-on stuff. A trustee may take their governing hat off to roll up their sleeves to be a marketeer.” It was agreed that as long as one was upfront and honest when recruiting a trustee to the board, expecting a trustee to do more was fine.
Janet then went on to develop the concept of a critical friend, in terms of the amount of support a board of trustees could give to the CEO and leadership team. A rather interesting discussion followed in which she revealed that trustees could be placed into 4 categories.
Janet expanded on the above terms discussing the amount of support a board could give to the CEO or leadership team. A fellow participant made the point that their board had a mixture of trustees, with people spread across all 4 camps!
A very spirited conversation then ensued on the topic of Risk vs Innovation with participants submitting examples of the different types of risk that may derail one’s role as a trustee.
On the question of what makes a great board of trustees in terms of dealing with risk, “It’s really to do with who is round the table,” said Janet. “If there is a very risk averse board, you need to get fresher blood in. It can also be a problem if everyone is from similar backgrounds, for example if you have a board full of people from large corporations. If you have a freelancer or someone from a charity background, the conversation changes. You need people who are cautious but also people who can take risk in their stride”.
At the end of the workshop there was a strategic problem-solving exercise. It was interesting to hear the solutions of the delegates who were divided into 4 groups and posed with different scenarios on how trustees might solve potential problems. I fortuitously ended up joining a group where I could relate to the challenge presented – the difficulties a board member might face from a board opposed to change if she were female and from ‘an ethnic minority.’
“The beauty of this session was that there was no right or wrong answer” said Luke. “It was simply pitting together all their life skills, people skills and experience gained from different professions. A real taster of what it would be like being on a real board.”
So why be a trustee?
Luke made an impassioned speech about becoming a trustee. I discovered that being a trustee is in fact a real insight into how an organisation works. You get to know how all the different departments come together. On the trustee challenge at the end of the presentation, Luke added, “Many of the problems required skills-based answers. It’s about people working together. There are things that are intuitively garnered. By and large, being a trustee is about people.”
On sources of support for trustees, Janet explained that the LinkedIn group UK Charity Trustees (which is co-managed by Reach and SCC) has a constant supply of questions, insights and information for trustees. Janet also referred to the Code of Good Governance which is a useful resource for a board to review itself. Other sources of support include the Charity Commission, CASS CCE, NPC, NCVO, The Association of Chairs and the Honorary Treasurers’ Forum.
“At Reach,” Janet concluded, “We believe a trustee role is about a mutual fit, so recruitment is a two-way conversation between the charity and the prospective trustee. Most charities approach it this way.”
Judging from the reaction of the delegates, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking to and from the general bonhomie that followed, the event struck exactly the right notes. As a marketing volunteer who prior to the workshop had no interest in becoming a trustee, I am now considering it. Perhaps that’s the best feedback!