Penny Wilson: 'Most charities still haven’t got the memo on diversity'

David Adams speaks to penny Wilson, CEO of trustee recruitment charity, Getting on Board, about the urgent need for trustees to take action, make changes and embrace greater diversity.

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The work of a charity’s trustees, largely invisible to external observers, is critical to the organisation’s success and integrity – but many charities struggle to find good candidates for trusteeship. The charity Getting On Board exists to tackle that problem. Its mission is to help charities find effective trustees; and to encourage and support people who could become effective trustees. It also seeks to increase the diversity of the pool of potential trustees, to unlock huge benefits for those individuals and for the organisations they serve.

Getting On Board CEO Penny Wilson acknowledges the scale of this task; created by the fact, she suggests, that many charities are “running a Victorian [governance] model”, “with certain sub-sectors of society holding most of the board positions in the sector”. “There are moral reasons why that has to change, but it’s also at odds with the values of most of our organisations,” she says. “And we’re not accessing vast swathes of immense talent.”

Learning ‘what good can look like’

Wilson’s own talents became apparent while she was growing up in Cheshire in the 1980s, performing well at school and winning a place at Cambridge to study medieval and modern languages. She says she had “no plan whatsoever” for her career, beyond a vague idea that she could work for a charity. But a move to London, to study for a Masters, led to a part-time job as an assistant charity shop manager and this led in turn to a first full-time job, as information officer for the Association of Charity Shops (now the Charity Retail Association). “That gave me a love of small charities; and of being in a job that supports other charities,” she says.

Her next role, as information and communications officer for Barnet Voluntary Service Council, also increased her experience of working with many different third sector organisations and led her to start developing her own ideas about best practice in charity governance. She was also inspired by her CEO, Julie Hawkins: “an absolute marvel” who showed her “what good can look like” in leadership.

In 2003, Wilson’s then partner, now husband, Richard Wilson, got a job in Cambridge and the couple decided to move back there. Penny applied for a job as a community relations coordinator for the university and then ended up working there until 2011, becoming head of community affairs, gathering more management experience; and again working with many other organisations including small community-based charities.

Becoming a trustee

Then, while on maternity leave in 2011, Wilson decided to try her hand at being a trustee. As it happens, she had been inspired to do so by the late Sarah Hodgkinson, who founded Getting On Board in 2004 and who Wilson had met while working for the university. “She used to come to a network I ran and talked about trusteeship and I thought ‘I really fancy this’,” says Wilson. She became a trustee of both Cambridge Student Community Action and the Cambridge Volunteer Centre. “It felt like a good way of retaining some sort of identity beyond being a new mum. I used to take my daughter along sometimes – but at other times it was the only time in the whole week, while I was on maternity leave, that I wouldn’t be attached to her.”

She sometimes talks about this period when encouraging other parents of young children to become trustees. She says her own children “have been to more trustee meetings than most adults – and quite a few AGMs as well!”

“It’s not necessarily ideal, but it’s better than not going,” she says. She says two of the trustee boards on which she has served were also able to move meetings so she could access childcare.

Embracing diversity

In 2014 she took a new job, as director of partnerships for The Brilliant Club, which tries to encourage more school pupils from underrepresented backgrounds to apply for university. By now she had also decided that she wanted to run an organisation herself. Her chance to do so came in 2017. She joined Getting On Board as operations director in March that year, but in September was appointed co-CEO with Katie Sparkes, who was planning her own departure. During this period Wilson also completed a short stint as interim CEO of Styleability, a very small organisation, founded by Sparkes, that promotes independence, body confidence and self-esteem for young disabled adults. She then became sole CEO of Getting On Board in May 2018.

She says she loves her job, describing it as “absolutely cracking”. Getting On Board works with a large number of freelance associates and “an army of volunteers”, training charity leaders and potential trustees, producing information and resources for both groups, running events to promote trusteeship; and facilitating networks to broaden the reach of charities recruiting new trustees.

“The most common way people become a trustee is still by being asked,” says Wilson. “So, if we’ve got a trustee body which is threequarters male, three-quarters over 60, threequarters from households with above median income, 92% white and so on – if we recruit in that informal way we’re going to recruit more people like us. We try and tackle that from both sides of the coin. We work with potential trustees and we work within the sector to change recruitment practices.”

She believes diversity of trustee boards is more commonly discussed within the sector today than in the past, in part as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests, but also, she hopes, in part because of the work of Getting On Board and other supportive sector organisations, including the Association of Chairs and ACEVO. However, says Wilson, “most of the organisations in our sector still haven’t got the memo on diversity.”

Making changes

Nonetheless, she is optimistic about the future. “The changes we need to make are makeable,” she says. The first step to take is to recruit trustees more widely and openly. The second relates to the wording of advertising for these posts. “It’s off-putting, it’s confusing, it’s legalistic,” says Wilson. “At the moment, in most cases, [trusteeship] is not being sold as an exciting way to get involved in charity leadership.”

One important focus for Getting On Board is to encourage more young people to become trustees. Wilson cites research that Getting On Board completed in partnership with Ecclesiastical Insurance in 2019, identifying barriers preventing young people becoming trustees. “It isn’t a lack of motivation,” she says. “It’s not knowing about it, or people thinking that they’re not going to be valued or heard, or that they haven’t got anything to offer.”

She thinks some trustee boards do fail to value the potential contribution younger trustees can make. “But sometimes organisations say they would really like younger trustees but are failing to attract them. Then when you look at how they’re recruiting, it’s no wonder, because the advert says ‘We’re looking for a senior professional, with this much experience’.”

She suggests organisations seeking to improve this aspect of trustee diversity and younger people interested in becoming trustees should visit the Young Trustees Movement website, as well as consulting Getting On Board’s own resources.

Finally, more work is needed after the appointment of a new trustee to ensure they play an active role in governance of the charity. “It’s the inclusion bit of diversity and inclusion,” says Wilson. “It’s not enough just to appoint somebody who’s going to shift the composition of your board if they’re going to sit in a corner and not have their voice heard. But this involves the whole board having some self-awareness.”

Outside work, Wilson loves spending time with her family at home in Cambridge – Richard is now MD of a technology company, their children Jessica and Harry are now ten and eight – and, she adds happily, “being a trustee!” At present she is serving the National Migraine Centre in this capacity.

“I think anybody should think about becoming a trustee, whatever your background,” says Wilson. “Everybody has something to contribute. The key thing is finding an organisation that matches your passions and needs what you’ve got, whether that’s your professional skills, or your experience in nonwork life. There is something for everyone. You’ve also got so much to gain in terms of your professional development.

“And diversity is very important, but this is not about saying white men need not apply – the point is that we need everybody,” she says. “I would really, really urge people to become trustees.”

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