As the Charity Commission’s Trustees’ Week (13-17 November) draws to a close, charities stand accused of relying too heavily on middle-aged, white business people as trustees and are told to do more to encourage greater diversity. At the same time, trustees bemoan the increasing amount of regulation they are required to understand.
As an adviser to a number of charities, and as a trustee myself, I have some sympathy with this. It is not, however, the full story.
The charity sector is itself diverse, and the role of trustees will vary enormously. Larger charities will have paid executives to manage operations and support the trustees. Smaller charities will often have the trustees running day-to-day activities, and they will be time-pressed.
It is unfair to criticise smaller charities for relying upon middle-aged or older people as trustees. These are often the people who can offer the managerial skills, the business acumen, and the legal and financial knowledge that the charity needs. They may also be in a better position to offer their time.
There is more that can be done. I have seen charities starting to advertise for prospective trustees, instead of relying upon personal contacts. Charities need to develop sensitive, sensible policies to make it easier for trustees to attend meetings, including engaging with employers to encourage them to release staff during the working day.
Charities are often very good at engaging with younger people when raising funds, but then fail to maintain any kind of relationship as these people progress into their 20s and 30s. Finding new ways to engage younger adults could bring considerable benefit and help promote diversity – even, with the right support, at Board level.
Trustees do need to understand and abide by an increasing weight of regulation, some of it complex, and some of it not written with charities in mind. This can seem unattractive or discouraging to prospective trustees.
Regulation is needed, however. Charities rely enormously upon public trust and confidence to operate, and it is right that they should be well governed. For the most part they are, and if a charity falls short in some way, it is important and unusual enough to make national headlines.
However, most of the advice, guidance, and support that a trustee requires is readily available, much of it free of charge. The Charity Commission’s own website is a good place to start.
No one should be dissuaded from becoming a charity trustee. Indeed, they should be encouraged.
Recent research, released to mark Trustees’ Week, reveals that 90% of trustees find their role personally rewarding, and 94% feel that it is important to them. This certainly reflects my own experience.
With the right support, being a trustee need not be particularly onerous or time-consuming. And that support is widely, and often freely, available.