Trustees Week: The Case for Young Trustees

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

By Amelia Ireland

"Trusteeships help young people to develop skills, gain an understanding of governance, and make a positive difference."

This week, 2nd – 6th November, marks Trustees’ Week and aims to raise the profile of charity trusteeships, showcase the important contributions that trustees make across the sector, and shine a spotlight on opportunities to make a difference by getting involved in governance. Trustees are individuals who share legal responsibility for a charity and oversee the management of finances, operations and strategy, to ensure that their organisation fulfils its charitable objectives, is run in the interests of those it exists to support, and operates in line with relevant regulations, legislation and best practice.

Charities, by definition, exist exclusively to benefit the public, yet worryingly the overwhelming majority of charity boards do not reflect the people that they serve. Despite the fact that 98% of UK households have used a charity’s service, trustees are predominantly white, middle-class, older men. In fact, a report by the Charity Commission in 2017 revealed that, in England and Wales, two-thirds of trustees are male, 75% have a household income above the national average, and the average age of a trustee is 61. Not only does this lack of diversity make charity boards unrepresentative, but it is also putting them at risk. If the collective worldview they bring to the decision-making table is not reflective of those they seek to reach, can trustees really be confident that their governance is as effective as it should be?

Indeed, diversity is one of seven fundamental principles which form the Charity Governance Code and underpin the high standards of governance and effective leadership required to ensure a charity’s success. Boards comprised of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, with a range of life experiences, are likely to be more resilient, as a diversity of thought encourages debate, fosters creativity and innovation, and ultimately results in more robust decision-making.

Good governance is especially important right now, as charities face unprecedented challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Lockdown has forced organisations to pivot their operations to deliver their work online; some charities have struggled with huge increases in demand for their services whilst others have been forced to close their doors to the public; and the cancellation of major fundraising events, like the London Marathon, has resulted in a sharp fall in income across the sector. Consequently, the conversation about diversity is more crucial now than ever and is essential for charities to navigate these uncertainties.

Young people are a demographic particularly underrepresented on Boards and must be central to this conversation. In the UK, whilst 1 in 12 Trustees is called John or David, less than 3% are under the age of 30. For those aged 18-24, the statistics are even more concerning: this group represent just 0.5% of Trustees in England and Wales, despite constituting 12% of the adult population. Just because this is normal, does not mean it is acceptable.

The Young Trustees Movement exists because the inclusion of young people in charity governance is an essential, not a luxury. As part of a wider, intersectional call for diversity and best practice on charity boards, the movement seeks double the number of Young Trustees by 2024. Of course, the presence of young people in the boardroom must also be accompanied by an inclusive culture where those young people feel welcome, are empowered to make a meaningful contribution, and play an equal role on the board delivering change.

Fundamentally, diversity of age benefits all. Young Trustees enable Boards to innovate and make better decisions, question their normal practices, and better represent the communities that they serve. Trusteeships help young people to develop skills, gain an understanding of governance, and make a positive difference, whilst the sector more widely benefits from the creation of future charity leaders.

Ultimately, the defining features of a typical trustee should not be their age, gender or ethnicity, but a commitment to their charity’s mission, and skills, insight or experience which they can bring to the boardroom. Young people have a vital role in redefining the image of charity trustees.

You can join one of the Young Trustees Movement’s training sessions to learn how you can champion Board Diversity here:

Amelia Ireland is the West Midlands Ambassador for the Young Trustees Movement and has been a Trustee at the Holocaust Educational Trust since the age of 22.

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