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Times have changed for trustees

Ten years ago, big charities were desperate to fill gaps in their non-executive boards. Now, it’s as likely as not that if you want a role as a trustee for a large charitable organisation, you will have to compete for it.

Over a relaxed dinner a long time ago, I declared to a friend that I wanted to put something back into society (I was, and still am prone to clichés after a good dinner). She suggested a charity she was involved with. I subsequently met the chair for a chat, we got on, and I joined the board. It happened to work out fine – it was a good fit. But it could have been a disaster.

Today, after six years at a large charitable social enterprise, I’m standing down as chair. To become chair I was shortlisted alongside someone who has subsequently been very successful in his chosen career (if he had been able to make the final interview I suspect I’d never have got the role). The point is, if you want the privilege of giving up many evenings and weekends, for a largely thankless and at times stressful role, you have to compete as hard as if you were applying for an executive role on the management team.

The new chair is currently being chosen after a (non-) executive search, canvassing of all trustees to encourage applications, submission of CVs and multiple interviews. The candidates are impressive and I’m sure will do a great job, in ways I never could. I should add that there is no remuneration attached to the role, nor should there be.

Why this huge shift in power from applicants to organisations? On the demand side, is it because some charities are now far more corporate and business-like? Is it about risk? If you choose the wrong person, you will be stuck with them for years. From the supply side, are there simply a lot more people looking to take on a non-exec role? If that is the case, why?

Recruitment consultants will tell us that some pro bono non-exec work will round out our CV (i.e. it will make us look like caring people, not cynical careerists willing to sell ourselves to the highest bidder. Yes I’ve been a consultant in my time). But perhaps more of us really do feel a greater need to use our skills – which could be to sell flags, bake cakes, clean up riverbanks or make strategic decisions – in ways that help our fellow citizens, especially those that haven’t had the same opportunities as us, or who are sick or disabled.

Is this a societal shift, a generational kickback against the “no such thing as society” view of the eighties? Are we replacing the void caused by the breakdown of the extended family, or the void caused by the lack of human contact in the world of social media, with a desire to find a place in a “family” of like-minded, altruistic people? I’m no social scientist, but I believe what is going on is more than just the hard-nosed recruitment consultant’s view.

The potential downside for the aspiring non-exec is that you will be rejected. It’s one thing to apply for a job and be unsuccessful – tough, but you rationalise and bounce back. You don’t take it personally, or at least you try not to. But when you research a third sector organisation, feel that you relate to its aims, ethos and culture and meet trustees, staff and beneficiaries… it is a lot harder to accept the rejection.

Of course, how the process is handled is critical, and I know my organisation has done this really well – many past trustee applicants stay involved with us and play a supporting role outside of the board.

There’s little doubt that times have changed, for the better. More competition should improve quality. But we should be careful what we wish for. Do we want non-exec boards to be filled by people who mirror the attributes of the exec? Are we bypassing, or even excluding, people that have experience, life skills, empathy, subtle attributes that would be hugely beneficial?

Lots of questions, not many answers… but buy me dinner and I can always supply some clichéd solutions!

Tim Willis is chair of the CIPFA panel for charities & social enterprise

  • Karen Drury

    Nice. But charities are caught between a rock and a hard place. With services to vulnerable people (for example) in the balance, charities have to be careful that their board has a mix of both well meaning AND executive skills.
    While the exec might have this combination, it’s possible that those without executive skills will screw it up. I learned this to my – and almost the charity’s cost – when I was a non exec on a board made up of lovely and committed individuals who didn’t recognise that the world was changing around them. They couldn’t imagine that things could or should be done differently, and we needed to smarten up. A painful experience for all.
    Perhaps a conscious mix of people (and not just finance directors as execs!) – and a thorough, and conscious appreciation if what each individual board member brings – is a compromise.