Trustees, Leadership, Governance

Too many barriers to trustee roles for young people #VolunteersWeek

Being a trustee is a great volunteering responsbility. Bronwen Edwards, Executive Office Manager at DSC, gives her advice on getting a trusteeship as a younger person for #VolunteersWeek

Bronwen Edwards never envisioned herself working for a charity. But after stumbling into DSC after working in the House of Commons she’s become passionate about the charity sector, and now she wants to put her skills to use as a Trustee. The only drawback – at 26 and having never had a trusteeship before, Bronwen (Bron) didn’t realise how off putting so many ads are.

Lawyers and bankers

‘It sounds like some orgs just want lawyers and bankers,’ Bron tweeted back in July – and she had a huge response. Apparently, she’s not alone in finding it hard to match her considerable skillset to the demands of charities. This despite years of experience working with DSC’s Trustees and supporting DSC to create an inclusive and more accessible trustee recruitment process herself.

Bron was asked to blog for the Young Trustees Movement. This blog is based on the hugely popular column she wrote for them:

I decided that I wanted to be a trustee for quite a few reasons. DSC opened my eyes to the integral part that Trustees play in charities, I realised that there are some really amazing trustees out there, I want to be able to offer my skills and abilities to support another organisation. The final reason was that I hadn’t really come across any trustees whilst working who were my age, and I really think that that isn’t good enough – young people have so much to offer and by failing to utilise those skills, charities really are missing a trick! I desperately want to help but also really want to prove that young trustees can be a blessing.

“The greatest challenge that I find when trying to apply for vacant trustee roles is the language used.”

On the whole, the language just tends not to be very inclusive. Although I have the time to give, skills to offer and the attitude needed to be a great trustee, the adverts are tied up in legal language. They make it seem like you need some sort of financial qualification and lots seem like they want you to know lots or rich donors and/or a huge contact list of influential people. Lots of young people don’t fit any of these boxes, not to mention the fact that these barriers will also put off those with disabilities, those who haven’t been to university, black people and people of colour.
I honestly don’t think that charities do this on purpose, I think many won’t even realise that they’re putting people off but once you ‘know better’ you ‘do better’.

“People who are applying to be a trustee do need to understand their role in regard to charity law, but that doesn’t mean they need to be a legal expert.”

One of my main questions for those who want to find new trustees would be ‘what do you actually need’ – personally, I believe you don’t need to see someone’s CV to know if they are right for your trusteeship, think of one or two questions that will help you find the person you need, advertise in new ways and in different places. Of course people who are applying to be a trustee do need to understand their role in regard to charity law, but that doesn’t mean they need to be a legal expert, of course the person needs to be able to understand ‘the numbers’ but that can be taught, there is so much training out there that can help (I really struggled with the finance side of charities at first and attended DSC’s Finance for Non-Finance Managers to support me in that area).

DSC has addressed its own trustee recruitment

DSC realised last year we needed to address our own trustee recruitment process. We had a long, hard think before we advertised the vacant posts that we had at the end of 2019. We wanted to make the process as inclusive as we could and knew that we needed to diversify our board. The board at DSC has always been excellent during my time here, but our trustees realised that they all looked the same, had similar life experiences, similar educational backgrounds and similar values. They didn’t think that was healthy and wanted to be more representative of the world and people we serve.

For the process at DSC we:

  • Made sure that we weren’t asking for things that we didn’t really need. So we worked on avoiding the sort of language that excludes people, for example ‘expertise’ or ‘years of experience’
  • Worked on making our wording feel warm and inclusive – so we focused on a friendly tone, talked about working together and giving support where people lacked skills or skill specific experience when it wasn’t needed in our advert
  • We focused on attitude and life experiences rather than traditional skills
  • We had three key areas that we were looking for, you only need to fulfil one of the criteria (which was made really clear); Experience of working, volunteering or using the services of small charities, experience of leadership in any sector, experience of delivering digital innovation
  • We undertook blind applications – to prevent unconscious bias – that included removing references to schooling; age; further education etc
  • We had two trustees shortlist applications and a different two undertake the interviews
  • We made it clear that applications were open for those who hadn’t been trustees before and that training and a full induction and a ‘buddy scheme’ with an existing trustee would be provided
  • We linked in with organisations who work with those from protected characteristics – to try and get the ad in front of their membership base/beneficiaries

Typically, DSC might in the past have had 10 or so applicants for a vacant trustee position. This new approach attracted 40 applicants of which we shortlisted 8 for interview. Our new approach to advertising produced the most outstanding quality applicants and reducing the 40 to 8 was really hard. In the end the standard was so high that we ended up taking on five – for three of our newbies this was their first ever trusteeship!

“So many young people are eager to learn, have the right attitude and bring with them different thoughts, solutions and perspectives.”

I think that there is a common misconception about taking on young trustees is that age means lack of experience or that young people won’t make good trustees. So many young people are eager to learn, have the right attitude and bring with them different thoughts, solutions and perspectives. I honestly believe that attitude is much more important than experience, after all there is so much training available out there for new trustees.

I think those who want to be trustees shouldn’t give up but should try and speak to a human being at the organisation you are interested in; try not to be put off by ads and remember that this is a process that lots of charities are working on at the moment so they will get it wrong – highlight it when they do because it’s unlikely to be intentional, rather that they are just a little ‘stuck in their ways’.

Better to apply and be rejected than to not apply at all.

Looking back four months later

Reflecting back on the response to that article,  it seems lots of charities don’t even realise that they are excluding younger people from applying to be on their boards, they just seem to follow the process they have already followed feeling that there is no need to change something that they have never viewed as broken.

I’ll be happy if what I wrote prompted charities who are looking for new trustees to have a different conversation about the type of applicant they actually need vs what they perceive they want (legal/finance experts).

I’ve been inundated with messages from charities who are shaking things up and doing things differently, for example the charity Emergency Exit Arts (EEA) are creatively asking prospective Trustees to send a short video (no longer than two minutes) in place of the traditional CV/Cover letter that may put some people off from applying.

My key message for those looking at recruiting new Trustees is that skills can be learnt through induction and training, attitude is what really matters and you need a process that lets applicants’ attitude shine through.

Great news

Since Bronwen wrote the original piece she has become a trustee of a brand new small charity called Baby Umbrella based in Kent.