On a hot summer evening, in a busy room at Lexington Communication’s office in Holborn (thankfully air-conditioned!) the Women in Public Affairs Network held a panel session on volunteering as a charity trustee. It was arranged at the request of a number of our 500-strong network, many of whom stated that they would like to hear more about life as a charity trustee, how it can help their careers, what skills they can offer as public affairs professionals and also what it means to ‘give something back.’
And it sounds as though these type of information sessions are much needed and welcome in order to diversify the make-up of charity boards. The average age of a charity trustee is 57 years old. Most are white men from middle-class backgrounds. Of the top 100 charities in the UK, 75% have male chairs on boards.
Having previously worked in the charity sector, I have to admit that I’ve thought about being a charity trustee before but I, like many other members of the Network, have been unsure whether I have the right skills to be on a board and was in the dark as to what being a charity trustee entails. How do I go about finding the right charity for me? What work is involved? What is the time commitment? Are charities really looking for people like me who have communication, public affairs and media skills?
Well, these questions were very much addressed head-on during the panel discussion and by the end of the event, I think I can speak for everyone in that we all came away fired up and ready to find a position on a board of trustees which will truly expose and immerse us in the exciting world of organisational strategies, staff engagement, fundraising and financial planning.
Our speakers, Liza Coffin (a former charity trustee for Development in Action and public affairs professional at a Health charity), Sarah Miller (Head of Press and Public Affairs at the Charity Commission, also a charity trustee herself) and Alex Swallow (Chief Executive of the Small Charities Coalition and Founder of Young Charity Trustees) were all excellent. They told us about their experiences of being on a board, how rewarding it is…. and how it has developed them both personally and professionally. We also had a discussion as to whether people tend to take up trusteeships in sectors relevant to their day jobs (e.g. would I volunteer for an education charity given that I work in the education sector or is it best to be a trustee in a different area in order to get experience of a different sector?) and a great debate about what it means to be on a board in the current economic and political climate.
The panel session was packed with tips, anecdotes, stories and advice. As Chair, I was scribbling away during the event in order to capture all the key points to share with some of our Networkers. So for those of you who weren’t able to attend, I’ve shared some of them below:
Top tips for finding a rewarding and exciting voluntary position on a board:
- Assess your skills. Think about what you can offer, what you want to learn and what your expertise is – and not just expertise from your career thus far but also your ‘life’ expertise, perhaps from your hobbies or travels.
- Do your homework. What sectors are you passionate about? Which charities are based in your locality? Do you want to be on the board of a small charity (where you can perhaps be one of 3 or 4 trustees) or a mid-size charity (with a board of say 12 people?) Once you have determined that, and have pinpointed a few charities of interest, start reading up on them, their accounts and their mission statements.
- Be confident. Young people have just as much to give to boards as their older peers. Be confident that you will be a great asset!
- Get to know your charity. Perhaps you could undertake some volunteering to get to know the ethos and people connected to the charity, or if you know them well and are seriously being considered for a post, even ask to observe a board meeting. We heard that volunteering can help open the door to the conversation with senior charity staff about taking on a trustee position…
- Be proactive! Not all charities advertise their vacancies or perhaps have had vacancies for a while… thus be maverick and approach the charities you wish to be involved in. Send your CV, volunteer, speak to staff and get yourself known. If you ask, they can only say no or inform you they have no vacancies at the present time… but they may well remember you in six months-time when a vacancy appears or even helpfully tell you they have a sister charity which has a vacancy…
- Prepare. If you do manage to secure a meeting/interview with the Chair of the board, make sure you treat the meeting as a proper interview. Prepare, read up on the charity, read Charity Commission guidance (see below), have some killer questions to hand and sell your enthusiasm for the role.
- Finally, be frank. We all have busy lives and this trusteeship will be one of your many commitments in your busy diary. Thus, be open with the amount of time you are willing to commit, and also whether you can only attend evening meetings etc. An open and constructive dialogue at the start can only help manage expectations and relationships.
Sources of information/where to look for vacancies:
- The Charity Commission website – a tool to search for charities by both key word search and location http://www.charitycommission.gov.uk/find-charities/
- Vacancies on trustee Week website http://trusteesweek.blogspot.co.uk/
- Vacancies via Trustee Hub from The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/voluntary-sector-network/trustees
- Vacancies on Young Charity Trustees http://youngcharitytrustees.org/
- Vacancies via Third Sector (online and in magazines)
- There are also charity recruitment agencies such as Trustees Unlimited and Prospectus
- ‘what do trustees do?’ http://vimeo.com/69950502
* You may also wish to read the brilliant Charity Commission publication ‘The essential trustee: what you need to know’ http://www.charitycommission.gov.uk/detailed-guidance/trustees-staff-and-volunteers/the-essential-trustee-what-you-need-to-know-cc3/
* You can find Alex Swallow on linked in: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/alexanderswallow and view an interview about being a trustee with Alex Swallow: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbk7UKcOtKc.
* Trustees’ Week takes place 4-10 November 2013 – there will be lots to read and plenty of regional events for people to attend so you may wish to follow on Twitter @trusteesweek.
Good luck and happy hunting!
(This blog was written by Laura Burley who is the Senior Public Affairs Manager at the Open University)