Taken on Trust research

Today, the Charity Commission has published the most comprehensive research into trusteeship and support for over a decade. The results tell us a great deal about who trustees are, how they are recruited, how they are supported and how boards operate. The objective has been to better understand the perspectives and characteristics of the individuals serving as charity trustees. There are some important lessons, not just for commission, but for charity boards and those of us that support trustees.

Analysis was conducted of the register of trustee roles maintained by the Charity Commission comprising around 950,000 individual roles, from which a random stratified sample were issued with a survey, resulting in 3,617 responses suitable for analysis.

A valuable and valued contribution

There are lots of encouraging findings in the research. The report serves as a reminder of the important role trustees play. The value of trustees’ service is estimated at a financial equivalent of £3.5bn annually. That is a remarkable figure and it’s impossible to quantify the impact. This relatively small group of committed individuals lead charities of all shapes and sizes making a significant contribution to our society. They do so without personal gain, working voluntarily and conscientiously. Despite the many challenges facing modern charities they ensure their organisations are effective and well-run.

Overall, despite the significant demands on their time and expertise, the research found these trustees think very positively about their role. 90% of respondents found the role to be either very rewarding or rewarding to them personally. Around 80% recognise both their standing as trustees and, in general, their legal obligations when acting as trustees. This is a significant improvement on previous research and should celebrated.

The need for diversity

Yet the research also confirms our assumption that trustees are drawn from a narrow cross section of society, and as such boards rarely reflect the communities that they serve. The clear majority of trustees are White British, with an average age of 62 they are disproportionately older, men outnumber women by two to one and they have above average income and education.

Most trustees are recruited informally from within trustees’ existing networks. This informal approach perpetuates the diversity challenge over time. To compound this further, the research tells us that the majority of a trustee’s primary source of advice and guidance is from their fellow trustees. The fact is that our networks tend to be filled with people who look and think like us.

As the charity commission says in its response this presents some key challenges for charities:

  • First, boards are missing out on the widest range of skills, experience and perspectives at board level.
  • Second, by recruiting informally, from a small pool of candidates, boards are at risk of adverse group dynamics, including group-think, an unwillingness to challenge colleagues, and complacency of vision.
  • I’d also add a third, that there can emerge a question of confidence and trust among the communities which charities exist to serve if those leading the organisation are perceived as being distant from, or unable to connect with, beneficiaries.

A call to action

To be clear, these findings do not represent a failing of existing trustees, but they must serve as a call to action to all of us involved in charity governance.

Efforts to increase the diversity of charity boards, including how we recruit trustees and how we make trusteeship a more attractive volunteering opportunity to people of different backgrounds are both critical questions to the sustainability of charities. This involves dealing with both the supply and demand for trustees.


I was surprised at the finding that around 50% of the boards of the largest charities still recruit trustees informally. This represents a significant missed opportunity.

The net needs to be thrown more widely in searches and candidates should be tested against required competencies. Through advertising opportunities openly, with written role descriptions, informing recruitment by skills audits and targeting candidates is more likely to bring useful backgrounds or perspective to the board.

Our templates, guidance and member benefits are designed to help make these processes less time consuming and expensive. The reality though is that the payoff of investment in recruitment is almost always worthwhile.


It’s not enough to just think about recruiting new trustees. In terms of demand there is a need to reflect on governance practices, structures, processes and to critically assess if we can make the volunteering opportunity more interesting and one which to different types of people. The new Charity Governance Code places significant emphasis on diversity.

When, where and how meetings are conducted will all have an impact here, as can the way we present information in our board papers. We should also be clear in recruitment that training is provided and being charity governance expert in not a prerequisite for being a trustee.

In my experience, the best trustees typically get involved because they want to affect some change and have an impact on a cause, as such the balance of a board’s time between fiduciary and compliance business and opportunities for more strategic thinking is key to maintaining engagement. As is using the expertise of trustees to advance particular projects aligned with the interests and skills.

While we know existing trustees find the opportunity rewarding, does it really look that way as an outsider?


Trustees’ Week 2017

For Trustees’ Week, we have discounted our governance training and made some of our member-only resources available to all users until 18 November. Find out more on our Trustees’ Week page.

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Dan is responsible for NCVO’s governance consultancy offer, focusing on governance reviews, board performance and trustee training. He joined NCVO from the National Union of Students (NUS) where, as a long standing consultant, he supported the organisational development of local students’ unions as charities.

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