The future of trusteeship

Frances McCandless, Charity Commission for Northern Ireland Chief ExecutiveAt the closing of a discussion on the leadership demands and role of trustees at the CO3 leadership conference in Belfast two weeks ago, one of my fellow panellists asked “is everything always so pleasant here?”

As far as conversations between regulators and the regulated go the conversation was very constructive with both the panellists and the audience agreeing, for the most part, on the direction of travel with regards to trusteeship. We discussed where we wanted the sector to be in five years, and what steps we were taking to make our vision a reality.

Delegates had mixed experiences on the level of expertise among trustees. Charity boards range from the highly professional, who produce best practice for others to follow, to those with little knowledge of their role and responsibilities at all. It’s the latter that concerns us most as the regulator and why we have taken proactive steps to address it. Recruitment practices can, on occasion, be thoroughly untransparent, with the proverbial ‘tap on the shoulder’ in evidence in several cases the Commission has picked up in recent years. In fact, charities where the trustees could be regarded as operating less than transparently are disproportionately represented where governance failures have occurred.

Frances McCandless speaks at the CO3 Conference 2017

Image by David McCann,

Recent good governance roadshows, in partnership with charities who also act as our helper groups, helped us talk to hard-to-reach groups and let them know that there is nothing to fear from good governance. Very often a charity’s social capital is invested in its reputation and maintaining this trust, which is comparatively high in Northern Ireland, is essential if a charity is going to fulfil its purposes.

While we know that the knowledge and experience of charity trustees are often wildly divergent, the demographics of charity boards are not. Only 2% of charity trustees are between 18 and 24, while 42% are over 65. The average age of a charity trustee is 55. While nobody could possibly doubt that the life experiences of these trustees are of great value to the sector, we do run the risk of trusteeship being seen as an older person’s pursuit. The inevitable result will be that nobody has any experience of governance when we’re looking for the next generation of trustees in a few years’ time.  One way of addressing this, and other recruitment issues, could be board shadowing, where potential charity trustees serve an apprenticeship with an experienced board member in order to learn the role.

Board shadowing would just be the start, however. Trusteeship is a leadership role and, just like staff, trustees need training. We’ve seen some great examples of trustees having annual personal development reviews during which they are prompted to state their own training needs and in five years’ time it would be nice to see this as the norm rather than the exception.

I hope that a combination of these steps and others will create a competent and confident image of charity boards. And from that can grow an understanding of their role in society, in turn helping to recruit more charity trustees from more diverse backgrounds. More businesses and public sector organisations may realise the personal development benefits to giving their staff the time to participate in voluntary charity trusteeship. Charities could be looking at a larger pool of potential governance volunteers than ever before, but to compete for these people’s time, the game must be raised.

Author: Frances McCandless

Frances McCandless was appointed to the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland in April 2010 as its first Chief Executive. Prior to taking up this post, Frances was employed as Director of Policy at NICVA, an umbrella body which provides advice, information and policy analysis to the 5,000 voluntary and community organisations in Northern Ireland.
Frances’ career in the voluntary and community sector goes back 20 years and she has worked with young people, women returning to work, in housing, with older and disabled people and as an international volunteer in Prague with the YMCA. She has also been a board member of organisations working in the areas of environment, ethnic minorities, reconciliation, community arts, audience development, mediation and physical activity.

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