Recognising trustees as hidden volunteers

At the end of March, NCVO contributed to a debate in the House of Lords on the economic and social value of sports volunteers, and some very interesting points were raised over the course of the debate. One point which I found particularly fascinating was that made by Lord Addington, in which he highlighted the crucial role played by trustees, treasurers, secretaries, and governing bodies behind the scenes.

It is very easy to value and recognise people volunteering in front-line or even operational roles: for example, the time and effort put in by the people in a local sports club responsible for coaching, refreshments, facilities, and so on, is self-evident. Illustrating how relevant this is to the majority of people, we will be running a plenary at Evolve 2015 in association with the Join In Trust about the involvement of volunteers in front-line sports activities. The far less glamorous work put in by the members of boards, committees, and governing bodies, though, is more easily overlooked – and yet it is these people who voluntarily accept all responsibility and liability – especially when things go wrong, as the session at Evolve on governance at a time of crisis will highlight.

The role played by trustees

As of September 2014, there were 164,000 charities registered with the Charities Commission. There are thousands more voluntary organisations operating unregistered. According to the latest available figures, there are an estimated 580,000 trustees in the UK, 45% of whom serve on more than one board. The number of volunteers undertaking this enormous responsibility, then, is significant. These individuals set the organisational vision and strategy, make decisions about the finances, and take ultimate responsibility for the organisation’s activities.

Of the vast number of registered charities above, though, only 11% have any paid staff members (according to 2011-12 NCVO Almanac data), with the remaining 89% staffed entirely by volunteers. In such organisations, it is very common for trustees to be deeply involved in the organisation’s operational aspects as well as with their governance mandate, and so their value cannot be overstated.

Trustees are themselves volunteers, but do not come under the remit of the volunteer manager. How, then, can organisations break down that separation, and communicate throughout the organisation the value of both operational and governance volunteers? I would suggest that there are plenty of ways to do this, and in doing so, an organisation can strengthen further its ethos of recognising the value of volunteering wherever it takes place within the organisation.

Appeal to trustees as volunteers

It can often be hard to get buy-in from trustees on the value of investing in volunteers. By framing the topic in terms of their own voluntary work, they will be able to appreciate the sheer volume of what volunteers can achieve with adequate support. Perhaps consider having one trustee on the board who acts as a volunteer ‘champion’ to promote the importance of volunteering throughout the organisation.

Involve trustees in conversations

Trustees, with experience of being volunteers, have plenty to offer in terms of opinions and suggestions for effective volunteer management. It can be valuable, then, to get their input into things like the volunteering policy and areas of the organisation which might benefit from introducing a volunteering programme.

Get involved with Trustees’ Week

Much of what trustees do is hidden from the rest of the organisation, and beyond the voluntary sector, people often do not understand that trustees are more than simply rich people who fund charities. Use Trustees’ Week at the beginning of November to showcase your trustees’ work throughout your organisation and beyond.

Get trustees to roll up their sleeves

One way to get trustees and volunteers to appreciate each other’s contribution is to bring trustees to participate in front-line voluntary activities. The Separated Child Foundation – the charity for whom I manage volunteers as a volunteer myself – recently ran a Packathon attended by trustees as well as core volunteers, and everyone involved found the experience reinvigorating and humbling.

Invest in trustees

It is in everyone’s best interests to have fully-skilled trustees, so work with them to identify which skill sets they would like to develop, and provide them with these development opportunities. Just as a volunteer manager should advocate for earmarked funding for the skills development of their volunteers, they should recognise that this need also applies to the volunteers involved in governance.

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Abigail was NCVO’s trainee volunteering policy officer. She volunteers at the Separated Child Foundation where she's managing their team of volunteers.

3 Responses to Recognising trustees as hidden volunteers

  1. Rob Jackson says:

    I think a large part of why board members are ‘hidden’ volunteers is because they do important work. Too many staff and managers still see volunteers as doing the nice but non-essential work in organisations. They struggle to conceptualise anything with real responsibility or significance as being something that would be done by someone who isn’t paid.

    That’s why, for example, staff might have anxiety about volunteers accessing confidential information but rarely have this same concern with board members.

    Such myths about volunteers need challenging and your blog helps to do that Abigail, thank you.

  2. Jennie says:

    I was shocked when updating my tax credits that they do not consider trustee role as working. The value of the role is equal to any paid position and should be treated as such.

  3. Jennifer Jewson says:

    It is your own harsh segregation of volunteers into two distinct camps of ‘governance’ and ‘front line’ that does as much dis-service to what a volunteer is.

    More than being two disparate camps, volunteering is a spectrum, which should include and acknowledge contributions across disciplines and time commitments.

    All charities should be thinking, not only about the front-line, but volunteers taking on roles that are virtual, micro, off-premise, on-premise, back-office, skilled or project-based.

    Seen like that, the trustee or director level volunteer is just a step away from the skilled volunteer or pro-bono consultant. They in turn have plenty in common with other back-office and support function volunteers. They with on-premise office volunteers, and so the spectrum continues.

    We all need to do more to promote and champion the diversity, value and power of volunteering in all the forms that it can take.