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Skills across the board

Written by David Adams
Feb/March 2017

Within this incredibly diverse sector, one thing that every charity has in common is a need for effective trustees. Resources and tools to help organisations find individuals who are willing to take on the risks and responsibilities of trusteeship are probably more numerous and effective today than ever before, yet many charities report problems finding new trustees.

Results of research conducted for Ecclesiastical Insurance in 2016 showed that 64 per cent of 102 charities questioned sometimes struggled to find new trustees. That included 48 per cent of the charities in the sample that had a turnover of less than £500,000; 36 per cent of those with turnovers between £500,000 and £2.5 million; and 26 per cent of the biggest organisations. The most common reasons cited to explain the difficulties were finding candidates with the right skills (cited by 68 per cent of all the charities and almost 90 per cent of small charities); and individuals being put off by the time commitment required (65 per cent of the sample) and concerns about trustees’ responsibilities (46 per cent). A significant majority of respondents (65 per cent) also said they thought the responsibilities of trustees had increased in the past five years, with the most common reason given for this being an increase in governance responsibilities and legislative duties.

Standards

But John Williams, vice chair of the Association of Chairs (AoC) hopes any recent increases in trustee responsibilities would not discourage potential trustees from serving. “I think what’s happening is simply a wider recognition that best practice is something to aspire to,” he says. “Even if it makes recruitment harder, if we’re setting the bar higher and dissuading people who aren’t going to give full commitment to the role, that’s no bad thing.”

Janet Thorne is chief executive of the volunteering network Reach, which helps charities connect with would-be trustees. “We have seen a few people pull out, sometimes citing Kids Company,” she says. “People are also more wary about doing due diligence before they join a board.

“But I don’t think there’s a waning of appetite to become a trustee. If anything, people are more aware of the role and why it’s important. We’re still seeing a strong stream of people seeking become trustees.” She also highlights growing enthusiasm among private sector companies to encourage staff to volunteer as trustees – often a useful source of expertise for charities.

The first element in best practice for trustee recruitment is a skills audit, looking at what skills will be needed to help the organisation achieve its aims and the extent to which it will be necessary to supplement skills and experience already present on the board.

“Think about the direction you’re planning to go in,” says Stuart Brown, partnerships manager at the Small Charities Coalition.

“What is your three year, five year plan? Have you got the right trustees to drive that?”

Beyond the most obvious requirements (finance, legal, or knowledge related to a specific cause, for example) one attribute in increased demand in recent years is knowledge of digital technology. Trustees ranked digital skills as the type of knowledge of which their boards had the greatest need in the 2016 National Trustee Survey, conducted by Acevo and nfpSynergy.

“There is a need for people with an overall understanding of the role that digital can play: whether more services can be delivered through digital channels, whether the board has a good grasp of digital fundraising and social media,” says Thorne. “Digital is also about how data is stored and shared, about whether people can find you online; and once you are online, about providing an experience which is well-designed for the end user.”

In the autumn of 2016 Reach launched a new campaign that aims to increase the level of digital expertise on charity boards.

Diversity

Charles Mesquita, charities director at investment management firm Quilter Cheviot and currently trustee at three different charities, thinks the skills audit should also be a means of increasing the diversity of the board, to help enrich the debate between trustees that informs and determines strategic decisions. “I’m very conscious of the groupthink issue,” he says. “We look for people from different walks of life to try to avoid that. You want people to have different opinions and be prepared to express their views. The boards that I find to be most effective have real diversity on them.”

Thorne warns against informal recruitment based on the premise that the candidate would, in some sense, be doing the organisation a favour by serving as a trustee. Instead, recruitment should match skills requirements with what individuals can offer. “If you explain what you want you will attract people who really want that role, rather than someone who will do it as sort of a hobby,” says Thorne.

Tools that charities of all types and sizes can use to assist with trustee recruitment include Reach’s TrusteeWorks, a service that allows charities to post details of their requirements to attract applicants; and to proactively contact individuals seeking trustee roles who have put their profiles on the Reach website. The service is free for organisations with turnovers under £1 million, and not very expensive for larger organisations. Reach also offers more comprehensive trustee recruitment services, offering marketing support and a premium service with something akin to executive search headhunting.

Other online resources available to charities of all sizes include the volunteering website of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW – see www.icaewvolunteers.com); the Trustee Finder service run by volunteering website do-it.org and the Small Charities Coalition (do-it.org/channels/trustee-finder); or groups with an interest in the organisation or a related cause set up on LinkedIn. The Charity Commission also signposts to useful resources.

Small charities

Even with all these resources available, the process can be particularly difficult for small charities. But some may find a suitable candidate within the organisation’s own stakeholder network: perhaps someone who is already volunteering in another capacity. A beneficiary of the charity could also be a suitable candidate, although any potential conflicts of interest will need to be managed carefully. The organisation may also benefit from working with other local organisations including the nearest CVS.

If a trustee will be joining an organisation in financial peril, honesty is the best policy, says Thorne. “You have to be straight with people and say: ‘this is the scale of the challenge’,” she says.

Whatever the precise scale of the challenge, trustees should be able to see a fully documented description of their role and should be told how long they will be expected to serve on the board. (This may be defined in the charity’s governance document.)

There should be a formal induction process, says Williams. Too often this does not happen: a survey of chairs of trustees conducted by the AoC showed that only a third had been through induction. The process can even begin before there is a vacancy on the board: one of the trustee boards of which Mesquita is a member encourages possible candidates to shadow current trustees for six months or more to find out exactly what the role entails.

Once on board new trustees need support, including training and opportunities to engage directly with staff, beneficiaries and other stakeholders, says Williams. He also believes there should be systems in place to offer trustees feedback and performance appraisals. Trustees at smaller charities may benefit from joining the SCC’s skills sharing and mentoring programme, which could put them in touch with other individuals working in the sector elsewhere in the country who could offer help and advice.

But SCC’s Brown is concerned the supply of trustees is hampered by a lack of awareness about what the role entails. “The wider public don’t see trusteeship as an immediate method of volunteering,” he says. The hope must be that any drive from government to encourage volunteering will help get more people to consider the role.

“People shouldn’t be fearful,” says Mesquita. “As long as you bring common sense, an interest in the organisation and a willingness to learn, you can become an effective trustee.”

David Adams is a freelance journalist



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