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Why everyone should consider becoming a charity trustee, and how to find your first trustee role

I recently became a charity trustee for the first time, for an organisation and cause I care deeply about and for whom I’ve volunteered in the past: it’s the youth empowerment and sustainable development charity that I worked with in Nepal in 2016, called Raleigh International. I’ve been over the moon for several months about the role, right from the get-go of writing my application and interviewing, through a comprehensive induction and into the trustee board meetings and sub-committees themselves.

Trusteeship is a role I’d heard of others doing, mainly people of my parents’ generation, but over the last 1-2 years I’d also noted a number of relatable young women of my own age joining trustee boards too, and I started to investigate it myself. This article is for anyone equally intrigued by trusteeships, but not sure where to start.

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Firstly, why should you become a charity trustee?

1. Altruism: Serving as a trustee is an excellent way to support a cause you’re passionate about. Think of the issues you care most about, whether that be the environment, education, a social injustice, a health condition or disability, a skills gap, or a particular group of people, community or country. Volunteering as a trustee gives you the opportunity to make a difference on that cause at a strategic level and ensure that a charity’s resources are used effectively to tackle that issue and change the world for the better.

2. Diversity and representation: Charity boards in the UK are still woefully under-representative of wider society they support, possibly due to the (wholly inaccurate) perception that you need decades of work experience before sitting on a board. Research by the Charity Commission in 2017 found that 92% of all trustees in the UK were white, and in 2015 the Charities Aid Foundation found that the average trustee age was 57, with only 0.5% of trustees aged 18-24. If you’re younger than 57, or not white, or not male, then you can help diversify a charity’s board and improve that charity’s decision-making to the advantage of its beneficiaries.

3. Personal wellbeing: While volunteering (effectively working for free) might sound an alien concept in a culture where time is precious, research has shown again and again that giving your time and energy to others is beneficial for your own mental health and wellbeing. It can make life feel more meaningful and provide a powerful sense of purpose to your life. Many employers also offer paid volunteering leave (mine offers 3 days per year), which you can use for trustee activities and board meetings.

4. Self-development: In return for giving your time and energy, you can also develop a myriad of useful board-related skills to support your own professional development: in strategy, governance, leadership, business management, financial acumen, compliance and risk management, fundraising, and the list goes on. While volunteering of any kind should help develop your skills, board trusteeship is particularly useful if you aspire to lead teams, to start or run a company, or sit on boards in future.

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How to find your first trustee role

I was stunned to hear that there are an estimated 950,000 trustee positions in the UK, covering all causes, sizes, kinds and locations of charities (including roles as school governors). There are as many as 90,000 trustee vacancies at any one time, however not all vacancies are well-advertised, so some research and digging are required. Here’s how I went about learning more and applying.

Learn about the role:

Start by understanding what the role involves, what formal responsibilities it entails, and more about the role in general. I recommend signing up for free newsletters from Getting on Board, Women on Boards, and the Young Trustee Movement – all of whom provide introductory webinars and talks, and some also offer podcast episodes and training programmes aimed at under-represented groups. Through them I learned about the Charity Commission’s ‘Essential Trustee’ PDF guide which is well worth a read, and Getting on Board’s ‘How to become a charity trustee: a practical guide’. If you know anyone personally who’s already been a trustee, regardless of their age or experience or the size of their charity, arrange a fact-finding call to ask them about their experience.

Find a charity and a vacancy:

Consider the charities and causes you already care about, donate to, raise awareness for, volunteer for, or support in any other way. Also consider schools and student unions, and not-for-profit clubs and organisations that also have charitable status. Beware of focussing your research only on huge, well-known charities, as these are more competitive, and look instead for local branches of those charities, or smaller charities with a similar remit to the big ones you already know about. You can research through the Charity Commission Register, with filters for cause or location, or set up job alerts on relevant websites like Reach Volunteering, Charity Job, Trustees Unlimited, and Linkedin.

Once you’ve found a charity you like, subscribe to their newsletters, research the current members of those charities’ boards (they should be listed on the charity’s website and on the Charity Commission website), and you could even reach out to specific individuals to ask them about their experience. There are also recruiters, such as Peridot Partners, Prospectus, and Saxton Bamflyde (although I don’t have experience of using them myself). Over time, this research will start to build up a picture of what you’re ideally looking for, what kind of organisation could benefit from you serving on their board, and the broader picture around trustee recruitment.

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Apply for a trustee vacancy:

Charities recruit new trustees when previous trustees reach the end of their terms, or sometimes when they identify a specific skills gap during a board skills audit. For example, some charities specifically recruit for ‘young trustees’ to help diversify their board. You might get lucky and find your ideal charity recruits quite soon after you start researching (like me), or you might be reading this specifically because you’ve seen a live trustee vacancy advert and you’re quickly getting up to speed. If you don’t have a live vacancy to apply for though, it can be helpful in the meantime to volunteer in another capacity, to familiarise yourself with the charity’s work, ahead of a future trustee recruitment.

A trustee application will often feel quite similar to any other job application: submitting a CV and cover letter, followed by one (or more) interviews with the Chair of the Board and other existing trustees. As with any job application, do your research: read the charity’s annual report; understand the charity’s values, strategy, mission or vision; the methods it uses to achieve that vision; and research their key stats and finances on the Charity Commission website. Ensure you can articulate why you care so much about the cause it seeks to tackle. Identify what you can offer to the board: perhaps you have lived experience of the cause, or a diverse perspective, or technical skills like governance, strategy, finance, risk or fundraising. Evidence how you meet the job description in the recruitment pack – all fairly similar to a traditional job application.

You’ll also find specific resources and advice for applying to trustee roles from the organisations I mentioned above: Getting on Board, Women on Boards, and the Young Trustee Movement.

If you’re unsuccessful… ask for individual feedback on your application and don’t give up! Keep honing your applications and looking for other opportunities. Perhaps look at smaller charities and plan to return to those larger charities once you’ve got some board experience.

If you’re successful… congratulations! Make the most of your induction period to upskill. Once you’ve been offered a trustee role, you should receive a thorough induction, including a 121 with the Chair of the Board, previous board meeting minutes, the last set of financial accounts, the charity’s governing document, the board’s Terms of Reference, and any other forms required to legally register you as a trustee. Ideally you’ll meet key members of staff, receive presentations on the charity’s structure, finances, fundraising strategy, personnel and operations – and all of these will help you get up to speed as fast as possible. I also recommend reading ‘The Charity Trustee’s Handbook’ as a very thorough book that I found helpful, and there are lots more resources out there published by the Charity Commission and others.

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While I’m still a relatively new trustee, I already feel really excited and enthused about the role and my new responsibilities, and I’d urge everyone to consider becoming a trustee, regardless of your background. Increasing diversity in the decision-making process can make a huge difference to the positive impact a charity can have.

Have you considered becoming a charity trustee? Or what questions do you have about the role? Do share in the comments any additional resources or advice you’d add to this list.

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