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How being a trustee can help you in your CEO role

By Tania Cohen, chief executive at 360Giving.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

I started my first chief executive position the day before the first lockdown began. As you can imagine, it was a less than traditional start to the role, with my 100 days plan being dropped before it even started. I felt very fortunate to have had varied experiences in the past, including several trustee and vice-chair/chair roles, which supported me to find my feet at an unsteady time.

In coming to write this I realised that my first trustee role was 28 years ago, and since then I have formally served on the board or committee of six charities – as well as several less formal steering group positions. I can honestly say that I have learnt a lot, but different things, from each of these roles.

Some examples of things that have particularly benefited me in the last 19 months in my CEO role from my trustee roles include:

  • Confidence: having been the other side of the board table, I had a clear understanding of the CEO role and what would be expected of me.
  • Understanding of how difficult it is being a trustee of a charity that has a professional staff team during challenging times: there isn’t much you can do and you don’t want to interfere or add to the pressure. This helped me to consider my communications with my new board and also be clear about what I needed from them and what it was realistic to ask them for.
  • Good governance knowledge: ability to develop the policies and implement the recommendations of the Governance Code in a very short amount of time. Confidence in this area allowed me to quickly develop the culture and practices, despite not meeting my trustees in person.
  • A strong network: I had insights from other organisations through my contact with people I served on boards with over the years. Having relationships with people in very different roles and parts of the sector that I could pick up the phone and talk to was valuable while I was establishing myself in my new role in a rapidly changing environment.

I would recommend a trustee role to CEOs and senior managers in charities for professional development as well as personal development and general volunteering reward. My tips for CEOs considering it are:

  • Choose a cause you feel passionate about (it makes a big difference) but avoid a charity that you could see yourself working for in the future as your dream job. It is hard to make the shift from trustee to CEO if the opportunity arises.
  • Consider what you want to get out of it. The knowledge and skills I developed in very small charities where I was more actively involved was different from the experience gained in trustee roles in larger organisations with dedicated staff teams. What is right for you in your own stage of development?
  • Look at who is on the board and how the other trustees might align to your knowledge and values. For example, on one board I was the only person working in the charitable sector and my role became more a compliance one. In others I have served with people who inspired me, challenged me and who I learnt from.
  • Ideally choose an organisation that isn’t too closely related to your own. If there are too many conflicts of interest or loyalty, you won’t be able to participate in a way that you are likely to get the most out of it.
  • Be realistic about the time commitment involved. Don’t do it if you are already very stretched. It isn’t just about turning up to a quarterly meeting. Not having enough time to do the role well is unsatisfying for you and the charity.

And if you are a trustee, make time to actively reflect on how you are developing and what you are learning that you can apply to your professional role. Include it in your personal development plan. If your organisation doesn’t have trustee appraisal processes in place, do your own self-appraisal of how you are doing and where you can improve.

Not everyone has the time to volunteer and be a trustee, but for those who do, it can be a rewarding experience with personal and professional development opportunities – and sometimes it’s even fun!

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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