Trustee recruitment: good for you, good for your organisation

Penny Wilson, CEO of Getting on Board, outlines why open trustee recruitment is one of the best things you could do for your organisation.

Getting on Board has just launched its free guidance: “How to recruit trustees for your charity: A practical guide”, supported by Rathbones and available here.

Fellow CEOs, what if I told you there was something you could do which could transform your organisation, clarify strategic direction and provide insight and support on functional areas including income generation, digital, marketing, HR and finance? And that this transformation is at your fingertips, whatever the size of your charity, subject to an investment of a day or two of your time, or a little of your budget?

The answer is in the title to this blog and seems obvious, but rigorous trustee recruitment isn’t common, despite the Charity Governance Coderecommending that “there is a formal, rigorous and transparent procedure to appoint new trustees to the board, which includes advertising vacancies widely”.

Getting on Board’s research found that 90% of charities recruit most of their trustees through word-of-mouth and personal networks. Most of us wouldn’t dream of “asking around” to find the best person for a paid role, at any level, so why do we do it for some of the most important leadership roles in our organisation? For most of us, it’s a combination of “we’ve always done it that way”, with contradictory concerns that open advertising will both open the floodgates to undesirables and that no one would be interested in being a trustee anyway.

As a direct result of recruiting through personal networks, 74% of charities say they struggle to recruit the trustees they need and only 14% of charities feel well equipped to meet the compliance, strategic and development needs of the charity over the next three years.

It also leads to a chronic diversity issue: men outnumber women 2:1 on charity boards, the average trustee is in their early 60s, Inclusive Boards found that BAME representation on charity boards is worse than on FTSE 100 boards, and people with “lived experience” of a charity’s cause are often absent from the board.

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The opposite of a “diverse” board is one which is made up of people who have similar backgrounds and skillsets, think alike and are likely to reach consensus easily. That feels good in the short-term but probably isn’t that helpful to your organisation. It’s also fair to say that people who know each other personally outside the boardroom are less likely to want to “rock the boat” inside the boardroom.

Getting on Board’s recent Trustee Recruitment Pathways programme (Supported by Comic Relief, The Pears Foundation and The Anjoli Stewart Fund) proved that there is a direct correlation between rigorous, open trustee recruitment and success in finding the skills, knowledge and experience that a charity needs on its board. We tested that assertion with 30 small and medium charities across England and Wales, and, as common sense would suggest, it turned out to be absolutely correct.

So, how do you go about recruiting trustees proactively and rigorously? We’ve laid it out step-by-step in our new guidance but here are some key points you might like to consider.

  1. Think about who your organisation needs on its board by asking yourself what opportunities and challenges you will need to deal with over the next five years. Compare that against what your existing trustees can offer. Where are the gaps?
  2. Put together an advert that explains what the charity does; what the role of trustee is; what skills, experience, background you are looking for and why; time commitment; what the individual might get out of it (exciting opportunity to make a difference, training, expenses?); and how to apply, with a closing date.
  3. Where you advertise is critical. Don’t expect potential trustees to find the vacancy sitting on a dusty page on your website. Go out and find them. There are some great trustee finder websites, like ACEVO member Reach Volunteering, and you will also want to target potential trustees proactively. If you need someone with property law experience, for instance, contact local law firms or large local employers with legal departments, look for relevant groups on LinkedIn, use Bar in the Community. Ask your trustees and connections to publicise the vacancy, tell your supporters and service users about it (But, importantly, you are encouraging people to apply, not inviting them to join).
  4. Run the rest of the recruitment process professionally – shortlist and interview against agreed criteria and appoint according to your governing document.
  5. We wouldn’t recruit a new member of staff and expect them to get on with it without a formal induction. To get the most out of your trustees, you should induct them fully.

A note on CEO involvement. You are entirely conflicted in this because you are recruiting your own boss(es). You shouldn’t be expected to drive the process without the involvement of your board. Although you should have a strong voice as the person who runs the charity day-to-day and therefore has a good idea of what would be useful on the board, the final decision should rest with the board, not with you.

So what will all of this cost? If you are doing the recruitment yourselves, there is an investment of CEO and trustee time but little or no expenditure beyond that. If you do have a budget, there are expert agencies who can run the whole process for you.

Rigorous trustee recruitment is common sense but not common practice. Let’s change how we recruit our board members, for the good of our organisations.

Photo by Pascal Swier on Unsplash

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