It’s Trustees Week 2019 – a week to celebrate the work the Trustees do for Charities across the world, and to learn from one another, share best practice, and, like all good trustees should, evaluate how we are doing.
My area of ‘expertise’, if I have one, is either cooking the best chilli con carne the world has ever seen (dark chocolate and half a pint of ale is the secret) or young trustees/youth volunteering/young people and governance. In this ‘short’ piece, I hope to talk a bit about lessons I’ve learned, and roadblocks I’ve encountered, and to finally encourage any organisations curious about what a young person as a trustee looks like for their organisation. “But they haven’t had 10 years’ experience of accounting!” I hear risk committees cry faintly. Well, quite.
I joined my first board as trustee of the British Youth Council in 2017, at the time I had just finished University and was determined to make something happen in Cardiff, so I stayed on and looked for work in the Charity sector. I was homeless- sofa surfing & living on friends’ generosity, and spent most of my time applying for jobs and volunteering. Once every few months I’d travel to London or *insert youth hostel here* and learn about how to be a good trustee.
(Plug starts) The board of the British Youth Council is all under 25, we believe in a world where every young person is empowered to create social and political change, and we recently won the Winifred Tumim award for good governance from NCVO. (Plug over)
The first learning
If you want to recruit a young trustee, or indeed any trustee for that matter – pay their expenses. They are giving you their most valuable assets, their time, and their accumulated expertise.
I could not have been a trustee for the British Youth Council if the charity didn’t pay for my train to London, and offer me staff rate for subsistence for the journey. Granted, mine was an extreme case, but I would have had to choose between getting food in for the week or travelling to London for a weekend. Spoiler alert, I would have chosen my groceries, and I like to think the BYC would have missed out on some cracking knowledge and energy.
Through a convoluted journey that I won’t bore you with, I got work in Cardiff, and threw myself into as much youth work as I could find, mainly at strategic level- funding panels and that sort of thing. I am the Communications Lead at Diverse Cymru, and a very proud trustee of Wales Council for Voluntary Action, both homed in Cardiff, both Wales-wide in their vision.
In my current job at Diverse Cymru I receive volunteering leave – 3.5 hours a month, and for the rest of my work I simply use my annual leave to get the most out of the opportunities that have been given to me.
The second learning
If you’re a charity, accept requests for volunteering leave! At the least, allow staff to flex their working hours. (If you’re not a charity, also accept requests for volunteering leave, but I doubt you’re reading this) You will lose an employee for an hour or two a month, and they will go on a free training course in people skills, or in understanding how a charity runs, or how to handle a budget. They will talk to new people, experience new things, and probably be even be a happier employee (as research has almost always said that volunteering makes people happier). Then they will come back to your organisation with those free skills, and benefit the organisation with them.
It always baffles me when organisations that run by the time of volunteers, or by the charitable donations of others, don’t seem willing for employees to pass on that time and expertise.
Something I’ve been bumping my head against for a while now, without much success, is how we as individuals engender real change to the ‘status quo’.
There are many answers I have hit upon.
I’m sure you’re tired of hearing straight white men talk about their answers – and there-in lies part of my answer. This isn’t a male/pale/stale bashing session, but systems set up by a subset of people will generally suit that subset of people.
This is true with law, this is true with politics, and this is true in the charity sector.
I really distinctly have in my mind’s eye a recent excellent youth conference – and two particular microcosms of interest there. It was held at the University of Birmingham, in an opulent building, with opulent high stairs and statues of great people looming over you. An incredibly rich white man stepped up to the beautiful podium, and spoke in his booming voice, about how his generation (I would have put him in his late 40s) were passing on the torch, and making space for new blood, to make decisions and solve the problems of the world.
The female chief executive of the charity that had organised the event then stepped up to the podium, and required a box to stand on to talk and be seen.
The podium was too high.
There was a second microcosm – we were discussing on our tables what it meant to be a leader of the future, for the next five years. The guy at the front talked about teaching people how to be leaders for tomorrow, learning debating skills, learning how to have those conversations in those corridors of power. I have talked about this enough, and kept my mouth shut and scribed for the group, jotting down their amazing ideas.
Something really jarred with me though.
We’re widely considered to be at point of political and social crisis in the UK at the moment. The rest of the world isn’t much better. Multiple countries are paralysed with riots, some rich people are richer than some of the world’s biggest economies, climate change might kill us all in 50 years.
Why on earth are we looking to train young people in how to look and act the same as ‘the man’? The ‘status quo’? The status quo clearly isn’t working right now, for 95% of people in the world.
The third learning
Trustees right now are in a more important place than ever to steer change. It is ever more important for trustees to reflect the people they serve, so they steer change that best works for them.
But trustee boards don’t reflect the people they serve.
(It is a very important footnote here that I am not attacking the individuals who sit on trustee boards of charities. They are giving up their free time, their vast expertise, and working in incredibly tight times to steer organisations that do good for so many of the UK’s most under-privileged people. I am rather revealing the unacceptable statistics that exist alongside that.)
Young trustees make up a 0.5% of all charity trustees, “despite making up 12% of Britain’s population”. (Young Trustees Guide – Developing the next generation of charity leaders. Charities Aid Foundation.)
Put aside that we are largely governed by puffed up public schoolboys, in what other world would we think that is OK to submit our decision-making processes to such a one-sided view? All good leadership manuals tell leaders to surround themselves by people with entirely different lived experience to themselves. All good leadership manuals tell you that diversity of experience leads to better decision-making. (I know this, because I was lucky enough to go on Academi Wales’ Public Life Summer School, and was in the 0.5% of young people there, too)
And this is simply focusing on one of the protected characteristics, ‘age’, and not even getting into race, or sexual orientation, or gender, or religious belief. (Shock horror, there’s a bit of work to be done there too)
I am fed up of being the young person to talk about the young person issue. There are other, better placed, different voices to my own that need far more air time and don’t get it.
It’s nearly as bad as organisations interpreting the Public Sector Equality Duty of talking to ‘a wide range of stakeholders’ as talking to three young people, who they always talk to about these things, presenting them with the finished article, and getting their “yes this looks great” as the bemused 17 year old looks at a 5 year Strategy or at a consultation document and away they go.
A second spoiler alert, that isn’t consultation.
I am tired of trustee boards that don’t represent the people they serve.
Also, don’t give me the “we didn’t want to patronise you by just having one young person here” – a seat at the table is better than sitting outside.
An excellent trustee colleague on the WCVA board with me said something to me that really stuck in my head at a conference earlier this year. She was talking about how the sector needs to work better together, how organisations need to collaborate in times of stretched resource.
And on paper, that sounds like something we can all agree with.
My fourth and final point isn’t quite a learning, but it is a challenge.
To you, if you’re still reading, to your organisation.
Reach out to the excellent organisations who have strong diverse boards. There’s quite a few of them.
Reach out to the excellent organisations who are doing proactive work to strengthen youth on boards, the Blagrave Trust springs to mind immediately.
Reach out to young trustees you know – you’re welcome to message me with any questions, queries or concerns; challenge your preconceptions.
And be prepared to flex.
Don’t put an advert out stating “we welcome applications from young people” and think your work is done. When your young trustee is in place, don’t set up your middle-of-the-day meeting and wonder why they don’t show up. They’ve got work, mate, and they can’t get the time off. After the board meeting, don’t wonder why they didn’t say anything – they didn’t know anyone in the room. Organise drinks or a meal with them, let them meet the other trustees in a less formal environment.
- - They might be awful. That is not an age thing, some trustees just are.
- - They might learn a lot. That’s fantastic, young people getting passionate about the sector and learning about governance in the sector is a good thing, it makes the sector sustainable.
- - You might learn a lot. They might change your view. They might bring energy, they might ask to do things differently.
I have finished with this before, but it’s still true, so I’ll finish with it again;
Young people are able if you are willing.
Happy 2019 Trustees Week.
Watch this excellent video from the Blagrave Trust for some thoughts that compliment and challenge.