The seven deadly sins of trustee recruitment

Approximately 700,000 trustees oversee 167,000 main registered charities in England and Wales. The vast majority of trustees are enthusiastic volunteers giving time and experience to help their charity, and in some cases charities, to make a positive impact on society. Their commitment adds to the richness and sustainability of the sector. But, as the Charity Commission’s Taken on Trust report showed, there is a woeful lack of diversity within the sector.

There is a continuous refrain that charities find it hard to recruit trustees and research by Getting on Board estimates that there are 90,000 trustee vacancies. With additional pressures on trustees – from the regulator, financial sustainability, media and public expectations – it would not be surprising if the numbers wanting to volunteer as trustees shrink further.

That said, charities and their boards don’t always help themselves when it comes to recruiting new trustees. With 90 per cent recruited by ‘word of mouth’ and only 10 per cent of trustee positions advertised (according to Getting on Board research), it is unsurprising that charities regularly report that trustee recruitment is challenging.

There’s a concept common to computer science and mathematics: the quality of output is determined by the quality of the input – in other words, rubbish in = rubbish out (RIRO). Sometimes the same equation applies to trustee recruitment. Harsh? Look at some of the seven deadly sins of trustee recruitment:

1. Preparing to fail: If you don’t invest the time in defining the skills, experiences and background of potential trustees, it shouldn’t be a surprise when you don’t get the skills needed to make your strategic plan a reality. As Einstein said, ‘insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results’.

2. Fishing in a small pond but expecting to catch an oceanic fish: To catch the intended type of fish requires the correct equipment, strategy, bait, patience and the most appropriate stretch of water. If the aim is to attract a young, digital native trustee, you are unlikely to strike it lucky by using the established ‘dead tree press’ or using language that feels musty or old-fashioned.

3. Quantity over quality: Sometimes the search for trustees can equate to quickly recruiting anything with a pulse to fill all vacancies rather than carefully assessing what the board has and what it needs to take the charity forward. Taking time and deliberating over what the charity needs may result in a smaller board, but one which is more focused, competent, committed and professional in its work and doesn’t have the additional burden of carrying any ‘deadweight’.

4. White lies: The ‘Oh, we only meet four times a year for a two-hour meeting, it won’t take up too much of your time’ line is very rarely an accurate description of the role, the work involved and the time required to do the job properly. It is the equivalent of using a 20-year-old photo of yourself on an online dating app to show yourself in the best light. The reality can come as a shock and even lead to disappointment, resentment and worse.

5. The wise monkeys: Successful recruitment of a diverse trustee board is not built upon hearing, seeing, saying and doing nothing! Being alert to messages – spoken and unspoken - in the boardroom, charity, volunteers, beneficiaries and other interested groups will help the board identify likely vacancies and appropriate routes to recruiting a suitably experienced and diverse individual. Sometimes the best candidate can be right under your nose, but you just haven’t been looking in the right direction.

6. Amateur, not professional: A haphazard, chaotic or otherwise unimpressive approach to trustee recruitment is likely to attract or encourage similar qualities in a potential trustee, or worse, someone who sees it as an opportunity to take advantage of the charity. Being structured, objective and professional will help to attract and retain interest from individuals with a similar mindset, and will cultivate a relationship that will benefit the charity – in the manner that decisions are made and the way trustees behave with those to whom they come into contact. A professional trustee in turn can inspire trust, confidence and donations from others.

7. Mirror, mirror on the wall: Having undertaken a trustee recruitment exercise, it can be tempting to just crack on with the induction and embedding the trustee in the workings of the board. Imagine what might be achieved if the board formally reviewed their processes, the quality and quantity of candidates and the overall success of the exercise. Feed those insights into point number one and the pattern of failure just might be broken.

Obviously, the above are over-generalised caricatures of some boards, but if we’re honest, we have seen these characteristics more often than we would care to.

The role of charity trustee is one that can offer considerable satisfaction, challenges and experiences, but it should not be forgotten that the position can be quite onerous and carries some serious responsibilities – to the law and regulators, to the media and the general public, donors and volunteers, but most importantly to the communities the charity was set up to serve.

In short, people are counting on the trustee board to deliver. As such, trustee recruitment is a crucial function of the board and should be approached with the same level of consideration and professionalism as you would a paid position.

Ultimately with trustee recruitment, you will get out what you put in. So if you want dedicated, diverse, knowledgeable, professional and experienced trustees you need to implement a suitably structured, formal and robust recruitment strategy. This will take time, but to do otherwise is likely to be a false economy.

Louise Thomson is head of policy (not-for-profit) at ICSA: The governance institute

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