Tomorrow I shall be leading four table discussions on the topic of ‘How to Encourage More People to Join Boards’ at the Trustee Week Conference in Dundee. Here are my notes and discussion questions.
I would value any comments that you may have.
Aim of Discussion
To identify ways in which Trusteeship can be encouraged and how we can build relationships and networks to support the development of trustees in Scotland.
The Challenge: Encouraging more people to join boards
Trustees play a vital contribution to society across approximately 45,000 Voluntary Sector Organisations in Scotland (SCVO, 2010). However, many third sector organisations find it difficult to recruit trustees and often rely on word-of-mouth to fill appointments. In Edinburgh alone, the Volunteer Centre reports an estimated 90% of board-level vacancies, across 1800 Voluntary sector organisations. Nevertheless, Scotland is not short of volunteers, with 1.2m adults (28% of Scotland’s population) undertaking volunteering activity each year. Trusteeship is one form of volunteering that provides a unique experience to gain valuable skills at a strategic level and a great way to ‘grow’ and ‘give back’. The Charity Commission report low levels of awareness amongst the public that a trusteeship can be regarded as a volunteering opportunity – less than 5% of people are aware that trusteeship can be a way to support a charity (Tomorrow’s World Telephone Omnibus Survey, 2006). There are also perception issues around the amount of time required to fulfil a trustee position, concerns with potential liabilities and interestingly some individuals believe they lack the necessary skills (DCLG, September 2008). Key to unlocking this is to promote the benefits of Trusteeship and to develop new and existing networks (i.e. existing volunteers, local interfaces, umbrella organisations, support groups) to communicate this message to inspire others.
Discussion 1. How can we encourage more people to consider being a Trustee?
Ensuring an effective board: Fit, skillsets and promoting diversity
Board’s to be effective need the right mix of skills, knowledge, backgrounds and experiences and perspectives to govern well, as well as embodying diversity in its widest sense (The NCVO Good Governance Guide, 2010).
At the 2013 Trustee Week Dundee Conference, there was a lot of discussion around ensuring the right ‘fit’ between the prospective trustee, board and the vision and values of the organisation. Firstly, there was consensus that the individual should be passionate about what the organisation does and for some, have volunteered for the organisation in the past. There was also general support for greater demographic diversity (e.g. age, gender, and ethnicity) on boards.
Charity Commission statistics show that (in England and Wales):
Only 0.5% of the trustee population are aged 18 – 24 yet this equates for 12% of the total population.
Mackinnon (2014) notes that policy-makers and funders expect to see various groups represented yet be highly proficient at strategic planning, finance, employment etc., and also hold high levels of competence with the regulatory requirements that the voluntary sector and charities face.
Discussion 2: How can boards ensure the diversity of board members to reflect key stakeholder groups and the skillset required to govern effectively?
Recruiting trustees: Sources, network and support
Please see ‘Recruiting trustees – cast a wide net and take the long-term view’ provided by Ilse MacKinnon at the ‘Putting Trust in Trustees’ SCVO conference in Edinburgh (November, 2014). As well as recruitment websites and local press; one source could include encouraging individuals who already have volunteered and may wish to take the next step. Secondly, boards could actively seek local professionals with specific skillsets and functional knowledge (e.g. by contacting an accountant on LinkedIn who lives local). Students are also great potential trustees as they are eager to grow, practice what they learn and ‘give back’; if not today but certainly could be the trustees of the future!
Discussion 3: How can third sector organisations build relationships to encourage existing volunteers, local professionals, and University and College students to join their boards? What training requirements might each group need?
Governance is a critical issue in any board room. Get it wrong and scandal won’t be far away – whether headlines about MPs expense scandal, horse-meat in ready meals, banks being bailed out by the taxpayer, or our leading football clubs given red cards by regulators.
At the root of each of these governance failures is leadership. It is often said that “the fish always stinks from the head”, and that’s because poor leadership infects the entire culture of an organisation. It breeds behaviours among decision makers that are underpinned by self-interest, continuing the disastrous domino effect. And yet, as we have found with the colossal sums needed to rescue our banks, the decisions of board members have a profound impact on people’s lives, particularly the vulnerable and our underrepresented young people.
Recent events have magnified the problem. What we desperately need now is a much greater emphasis on diversity in the board room if we truly want to improve the governance of organisations in the public, private and third sectors.
We already know diversity adds value to a board due to the variety of views, experiences and backgrounds included in the decisions that are made. It makes sense, whatever way you look at it, to have your customers, service users and wider society represented at the top level. Unfortunately, in 2014, we still have a situation where only some 12.5% of the members of FTSE 100 company boards are female, despite women making up over half of the population. A scandal in itself. But achieving gender-balanced boardrooms, according to The Equality and Human Rights Commission, could take over 70 years. We have to do better.
Specifically, to shorten the cycle, we must foster and nurture the next generation of emerging leaders from all walks of life to ensure such governance failures are avoided in the future. And this has to include providing opportunities for young people to participate in decision making, active citizenship and civic engagement.
In Edinburgh alone, for example, there are over 1,800 voluntary sector organisations but 90% report vacancies on their boards of trustees. Not only is this bad for governance, these boards are predominately ‘grey’, with the Charity Commission reporting that the average age of a trustee is 57. Young trustees enthusiasm for a range of causes across Scotland remains a relatively untapped resource. But there must also be the right level of support to help guide them.
It’s why I and colleagues at Edinburgh Napier University are pioneering an educational programme to give our students the skills to experience the boardroom. Our new ‘On Board’ course was first piloted by the Birmingham Leadership Foundation (BLF) in the wake of the city’s riots. At that time, I was working there and used Twitter to lead the call to form the riot-clean up group. And what struck me was how young role models without any need for recognition came together in an act of solidarity to say “not in our name”. Later, as a Young Trustee myself of BLF, we launched Birmingham’s Get on Board programme to nurture the next generation of future leaders and role models. It’s been a life-affirming success.
In Edinburgh, we’re delivering the On-Board programme in partnership with the Association of Corporate Governance Practitioners to give students a formal qualification. They interview to take part and are chosen on merit. As it happened, two thirds of our first group of successful applicants ended up being female. Meanwhile, organisations such as the Voluntary Action Fund, Midlothian Play and ICE store have already recruited a ‘young trustee’ onto their boards. It’s a step in the right direction.
In the future, we want to extend the programme to public and private organisations who wish to support staff keen to give something back to local communities. Candidates will not only gain a university qualification with professional body recognition but a practical experience in good governance and ethical leadership.
In short, it comes down to passion, about a cause and contributing to people’s lives. Trustee’s decisions provide the very glue that binds, in part, Scottish life. In this year of Homecoming and the independence debate, we have an opportunity to celebrate the volunteers who make up Scotland’s civil society. Then comes 2018 – the year of young people in Scotland. It’s time for all of us to help celebrate and nurture their talents.
Dr Miles Weaver is a Senior Lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University’s School of Management.