Finding a partner, whether it be in business, relationships or otherwise, is incredibly hard to get right. It's a significant commitment and not something you want to jump into headfirst. You probably shouldn't start a long-term relationship before going on a few dates first. And you most definitely shouldn't agree to move in with someone for five years after a few hours worth of interviews. However, that's exactly what happens when someone applies for trusteeship at most charities.
It's nice to believe that you can make a rational judgement within a short space of time, but the truth is that it can be tricky to find the right 'fit.' The cost of getting it wrong, for both parties, should not be underestimated.
The charity sector needs to explore whether becoming a trustee should be more of a 'courtship' than one single decision made after an interview or two. The problem is that offering skills and expertise to a charity is very often a fixed, rigid process - you can either volunteer or you can become a trustee. It's rare that there's much middle ground between the two. But why the need for them to be mutually exclusive? You don't expect to get married without getting engaged first.
We need a much more flexible approach that reduces the risk for both the charity and the trustee. There needs to a period of time where skills-based volunteering can turn into a trusteeship if it goes well. Both parties getting to try before they buy. Better inductions for new trustees should be put in place alongside this as, right now, they're pretty much non-existent. There’s a pressing need to move towards a more structured approach to understand where the shared value lies for charities and their trustees. The question of what's the best way to ensure both parties gain from their partnership has to be addressed frequently and then continuously refined.
One of the challenges with developing this, however, is that a number of charities simply don't know what it is they need. Identifying, recruiting and developing peoples' skills are not a strong point for most of them. Not enough is invested in both getting and keeping the right people. This is not specific to charities - a lot of organisations aren't very good at it. There's a reason why we have a booming £20billion+ recruitment industry here in the UK.
Not knowing what they need drives a lack of diversity among charity trustees. Looking at trustees' age profiles, only 0.5 % of trustees are under the age of 25 with the average age of a trustee being 57. There's nothing wrong with 57 year olds being trustees, but it means that there simply isn't enough diversity. This is a major risk. Who is informing what charities will need in the next five to ten years skill-wise? Are charities even talking about getting trustees on board that 'get' digital technology and the massive potential it offers? The answer is no. Most are not even close.
Given that we have over 180,000 charities, it's clear that the internet is yet to be tapped into properly - just Google 'trustee opportunities' and see what comes up! Not promoting trustee roles online is a missed opportunity to start addressing this potentially crippling lack of diversity. Charities need to make it easier to be 'found' by the large, and still growing, number of people that want to give something back. At the moment access to trusteeships is largely predicated on being 'in the know.' Charity commission guidelines can be inaccessible and the charity world indecipherable to newcomers. Cue the self-reinforcing cycle of 57 year olds.
It boils down to two things: charities need to start harnessing technology and they need greater access to pro-bono expertise. Doing the former would go a very long way to unlocking the latter. This would open up trusteeships to a wider range of people and create a more flexible system of support for charities. And perhaps most importantly, it would give potential trustees and their charities the space to feel each other out and decide whether marriage would be a good idea for both of them.
About Good People
Good People is funded by Nesta and The Cabinet Office and runs a free peer-to-peer platform for posting ideas, jobs and voluntary opportunities. It works with leading brands and organisations to design, develop and scale game-changing social ventures. The website gives access to a talent pool of skilled people who want to support causes that matter. Follow them on Twitter @GoodPeopleUK.