Trustees ‘do not reflect the communities charities serve’, warns Commission report

Written by Lauren Weymouth

The Charity Commission has published a major report into charity trusteeship, which has highlighted the need for charities to do more to promote diversity on their boards.

The report, commissioned by the Office for Civil Society and the Charity Commission, and delivered by a consortium led by Cass Business School and the Cranfield Trust, found there is a severe lack of diversity on trustee boards, with the majority of trustees being white, older and above average income and education.

Researchers surveyed a sample of 19,064 trustees via a national survey, generating around 3,500 responses. Among those, 71 per cent of charity chairs are men, 68 per cent of charity treasurers are men and the average age among boards is 55-64. Over three quarters of trustees have household incomes above the national median.

Charity Commission chief executive Helen Stephenson warned the research shows trustees “do not reflect the communities charities serve”.

“Charities are therefore at risk of missing out on the widest range of skills, experience and perspective at board level – indeed trustees themselves report lacking key skill areas, including digital.”

The findings also revealed trustees lack relevant digital, fundraising, marketing and campaigning skills at board level. They are also concerned about their skills in dealing with fraud and external cyber-attacks.

“Uniformity at board level also puts charities at risk of adverse group dynamics, including dominance by individuals or complacency of vision. Our casework bears out that problems in charities often have their root in a culture at board level which allows inappropriate behaviours and poor decision making to go unchallenged,” Stephenson said.

“Diversity of experience, approach and personality helps guard against such problems and enables any organisation to foster a culture that is conducive to good governance.”

Positivity among boards

However, the research also found that charity trustees, who are overwhelmingly volunteers, feel positively about their role and about the personal reward and satisfaction it gives them. It highlighted that trustees’ contribution to charities amounts to a monetary equivalent of around £3.5 billion a year.

The report recommended that guidance and support for trustees should be reviewed and enhanced and should draw on developments in digital technology.

“Trustees make a vital contribution to our society and communities up and down the country rely on their voluntary efforts. It is heartening that, despite the demands on their time and expertise, trustees are overwhelmingly positive about their role,” Stephenson said.

“But there is no room for complacency about the state of trusteeship […] I welcome this extensive and rigorous research and hope its findings act as a catalyst for action by charities to promote diverse trusteeship, and to better support existing trustees in their work. This is an opportunity for the sector to initiate change that secures its future.”

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