Widening the generational gene pool of trustees

In the fallout from the Kids Company crisis much has been written about the need for charity boards to up their game. No one can deny that trusteeship is in the spotlight like never before and charities quite rightly will be focusing in the coming weeks and months on what more can be done to strengthen their governance.

There is a danger in all of this that board diversity will fall to the bottom of the pile. Charities will be so preoccupied with covering off the legal, financial and fiduciary risks that they will be tempted to recruit trustees solely on the basis of their professional expertise and experience.

Of course such skills and expertise are badly needed, but we need to guard against a view that recruiting a couple of high-flying executives is all that is required to shore up our charities reputation.

The dangers of group think

Diversity is not simply about social justice and ensuring that charities better reflect the communities they operate in and serve, important though this is. Diversity is essential to good performance and effectiveness.

There is a mound of academic literature to show that diverse groups outperform homogeneous and close-knit groups time and again when it comes to decision making. The lessons are clear: group think is never particularly creative or effective in solving problems. Diversity of outlook and experience is much more conducive to coming up with solutions.

Harnessing the youth perspective

I have been thinking about this issue a lot in recent weeks, especially in relation to the involvement of young people as trustees. It was prompted partly by a new report from CAF which includes the frankly shameful statistic that 18-24 year olds account for less than 0.5 per cent of all charity trustees; and partly because NCVO has recently signed a new pledge with Step up to Serve to try and find ways to address the situation.

The CAF report neatly summarises the benefits which will arise from engaging young trustees:

  • Challenge the disconnect which can exist between boards and the charity’s beneficiaries
  • Increase public confidence in the organisation
  • Strengthen decision making
  • Build supporters and volunteers for life
  • Demonstrate that the charity is living its values
  • Harness new skills and perspectives

Addressing the issue

In the past month we have held a couple of sessions with charities of differing sizes and shapes to examine what can be done to widen their generational gene pool.

First off, in partnership with the Youth Sport Trust, Sport and Recreation Alliance and Step up to Serve, we held a session with leading sports governing bodies. Then this week, with the same partners, we ran a session with a wider group of charities at our Trustee Conference.

It is reassuring that there appears to be no shortage of will to make things happen. All the governing bodies and charities present (although I guess we need to accept they were a self-selecting group) were aware of the importance of bringing more young people into their governance structures and all were up for the challenge of making it happen.

There was clearly no silver bullet identified but a number of themes emerged from the discussions which begin to suggest a way forward.

  • Adopting a bottom-up approach and getting mass, rather than just aiming to appoint one person on each board which could smack of tokenism
  • Providing young people with the opportunity to get involved with decision making at all levels of the organisation
  • Organising meetings at different times of the day to avoid excluding individuals who might be in education or in jobs where they find it difficult to be released
  • Experimenting with other ways of running meetings, such as offering opportunities for Skype or video conferencing
  • Disseminating case studies of organisations where youth governance is working well along with some tangible examples of the support available
  • Making a bank of inspiring young people available to speak at board meetings to present the case
  • Providing a full induction to all new board members to ensure they are fully up to speed with the workings of the charity and the issues under discussion
  • Looking at providing mentors or shadows to link up experienced board members with less experienced ones
  • Ensuring young people are given the opportunity to participate in the full running of the board and not there just to advise on youth related issues
  • Reserving a certain number of places on the board for young people

Moving forward

NCVO will be working with Step up to Serve and our other partners over the coming year to try and move this issue along. We will be working with our colleagues at Trustees Unlimited, who have made the theme of youth trusteeship a priority focus.

We need great examples of charities which are excelling in engaging young people and happy to share their experience. As always leadership is key and we need to see chief executives and chairs leading the drive.

Widening the profile of our boards will not ensure our success and certainly won’t eliminate future crises. But without a diversity of opinion and perspective we will be doomed to under-perform and under-deliver.


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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

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