Becoming a new trustee

Newbie Trustee Tap on the shoulder. That’s how I became a Trustee and Honorary Treasurer. I had originally wanted to become a trustee and treasurer of a new cutting edge charity with big vision. I applied and was accepted – but an unexpected build up of work prevented me taking the role. A year later I got the metaphorical “tap on the shoulder” from a friend. And as Trustee and Treasurer, I joined an old charity that long lost contact with the current needs, and was reputedly cosy and genteel. All the things I didn’t want.

Well things are not what they seem. A sceptical me grilled the CEO, talked to people who knew the charity, looked at the accounts and founding documents, and met the Chair of Trustees and existing Treasurer. Yes, they too wanted to become relevant again. They recognised that would require big changes. However, to make this leap, they wanted people they could trust, people they knew about through personal connections, to help take them to a new strategy, to make a good 19th century vision fit for the 21st century.  Perhaps I could help?

The “tap on the shoulder” is well criticised means of getting new trustees.  It is highly vulnerable for like-selecting-like. It can end up as self referential, smug, incestuous. Largely white, male and stale.

As white, male of possibly stale, was I being complicit.  But on one hand, this old charity wanted

¬ new trustees who were both capable of steering fundamental change, while on the other hand

¬ capable of ensuring the fears of staff and service users are allayed and confidence maintained.

You need to know who you are letting on Board. I have had much exposure to “The Messianic Trustee” elsewhere. Are you one of those? Determined to be so leading-edge that the charity becomes bleeding-edge. Like in an earthquake, everything becomes fluid and falls down. Words galore, new plan, brain storming, out of box thinking where there is even no box.  Other trustees quake at your energy and unswerving vision. The CEO despairs, resigns or is asked to resign. After the roar and the fury the messianic trustees burn themselves out, after scorching us and become quiet or leaves. It is said “without a vision, the people perish” – Amen. But I will seek a path somewhere between apocalyptic fervour and unchanging torpor.

There are other routes into trusteeship.  Positions are advertised.  CFG, ICAEW and Charity Job advertise for applicants, a route that offer formal role descriptions and person specifications.  That way a balanced board can be created.  But for the small charities they fear what they will let in, and so still rely on “the tap on the shoulder”.


This article previously appeared in CFG Finance Focus November 2014, revised May 2015

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