Melissa Moody: Does the term trustee need a re-brand?

Be honest: if you weren’t part of the charity sector, would you know what the term 'trustee' means? The law describes charity trustees as ‘the persons having the general control and management of the administration of a charity’, but who outside of the sector knows this?

I know that I wouldn’t. I’ve been entrenched in the charity sector for nearly 10 years, and I only became familiar with the term in the last couple of years. Many of my friends openly admit to the same thing. But if people outside of the sector don’t know what the term means, how are we to attract them to the role?

It’s been well documented that the charity sector needs to be more diverse and it’s crying out for trustees from different backgrounds. When I asked a family member what they thought a trustee was, “middle-aged man in a suit” came straight to their mind, and I wasn’t particularly surprised by the answer.

In 2017, the Charity Commission’s Taken on Trust report laid bare the lack of diversity on charity boards, highlighting that men outnumbered women by two to one and that more than 90% of trustees are white, older with above average income and education. This may have been four years ago, but I don’t imagine enough has changed.

There’s probably a lot of questions to be asked about why trustees are viewed this way, apart from the obvious answer that it’s because that’s the way it currently is. It could be to do with marketing, communications or the role’s own self-PR over the years, or all of the above.

So how can this image be changed? Like the title of this piece suggests, the term ‘trustee’ itself could be changed – but to what? The NCVO suggests that sometimes trustees are given other titles such as governors, councillors, management committee or directors. Nearly any of these could work, in my opinion. Schools have governors and in general, people understand what that means – it could very well be a viable alternative for charities.

It may not even be just the term ‘trustee’ that needs a rebrand, though. When I’ve talked to friends and family about this issue, their reactions suggest that the whole concept of trusteeship could do with an overhaul. Trustees are volunteers and should feature much more heavily in any discussions around volunteer opportunities.

This then begs the question: are charities doing enough to promote vacancies or are they instead relying on word-of-mouth from current board members? According to the Charity Commission, 81% of trustees are recruited by word of mouth, so this could be part of the issue. Charity trustee boards should be made up of different races, ages, income levels and genders – even more so if the charity is focused on any issues relating to these things.

If boards are looking for new blood, it also wouldn’t hurt to speak to schools or universities. The skills needed for boards are out there in abundance and young people are more eager than ever to stand up and make a change.

Becoming a trustee could be the perfect chance for them to help make a difference. Charities should also reach out to youth or community groups, use social media and talk to people in their own organisations to find new and diverse members.

But this is where the term and its definition will reappear. The term needs to be easily recognised outside of the sector and currently, ‘trustee’ just isn’t it.
Do you think the term trustee needs a rebrand? Get in touch with your thoughts

Melissa Moody is senior writer at Charity Times

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