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Are you finding it difficult to attract trustees?

Updated: Mar 8, 2022

The world has changed so much since the pandemic started and the third sector has had to roll with the punches, just like any other.

Charities found it difficult to recruit trustees before Covid came along, and the crisis seems to have made the situation even worse.

Getting people to donate their time is an issue at all levels of a charity. Generally, people’s schedules are so busy with all the commitments they juggle that it tends to be just the retired or the rich who have spare time to donate.

Of course, every charity will have a wish list when it comes to recruiting trustees. Someone who’s passionate about the cause but who’s also highly logical. Someone with empathy who can cope with making difficult, and sometimes unpopular, decisions. Someone with the skills, knowledge and experience needed to carry out the role they’d be tasked with. Someone reliable, with spare time they can commit to the charity. Someone with lived experience of the cause being supported. A team player who has the beneficiaries’ interests at heart.

Of course, in the third sector, what you want doesn’t always translate with what you get. For example, if you had someone interested in becoming a trustee of your charity, but they didn’t have lived experience of the issue at hand and they’re not quite as skilled as you’d prefer, do you knock them back if they tick all the other boxes? In this climate, can you afford to be picky? On the other side of the coin, the impact of a disruptive, destructive or despot-like board member could cause ramifications for the charity for a long, long time.

Diversity is also important. Ideally, everyone on your board wouldn’t be of the same gender, background, culture and stage of life—you’d aim to have a mix of people, so that you can draw from a broad range of experience, ideas and opinions. But how do you champion diversity if nobody is interested in joining you in the first place?

You could ask your existing network for interested parties to make themselves known. Their familiarity for your cause could prove a bonus; however, it’s difficult to be biased about their suitability if they’re already a volunteer/supporter of the charity. How could you say no to them without damaging your existing relationship?

You could try advertising it in the same manner as any other job opportunity, i.e. on job boards, across relevant parts of social media, or even employ a specialist recruitment agency, if necessary. This will cast your net wider; however, strangers to the charity may not have the same impetus to join you, and you could see a low take up for your efforts.

It’s better to be clear about what you’re looking for, even if the ensuing job spec does seem more like a wish list than a realistic view of the people you’ll attract. Aim high but be prepared to compromise if needs must. As mentioned, it’s better to have an empty role for a little longer than a poor recruiting experience and the fallout of such.

Be clear about the time commitment the role would require—don’t spring this on the new recruit after they’ve signed up, it’s not fair. Spell out your expectations; if it’s not for them, it’s better everyone knows this before they become part of the team. Don’t forget to carry out your due diligence if you do come across a potential hire, such as following up with their references and initiating a DBS check if your charity works with children and/or vulnerable people. You should also ensure they have the capacity to become a charity trustee; for example, anyone who has unspent convictions for crimes that involve fraud, theft or dishonesty cannot take up a trustee role on a charity board. This also applies to anyone serving a debt relief order or who is subject to a current bankruptcy petition (or someone who has ongoing restrictions enforced by the Official Receiver even though their bankruptcy period has expired). If the potential trustee has been disqualified as a company director, they are also ineligible to sit on your charity’s board. And it goes without saying that, if they’ve been previously removed as a trustee by the Charity Commission from another cause, they wouldn’t be able to represent your organisation as a trustee.

When clarifying the role specifications, take time to determine why someone would agree to be a trustee for your charity. Of course, their passion to give back and their belief in the cause will be strong motivators, but what will they get other than personal fulfilment? What skills will they learn? What can they expect to add to the existing team? Together, where do you hope to take the charity—what’s the future vision with them on board?

It’s much harder to attract trustees than it used to be—the Charity Commission estimates that 20% of all UK charities currently have at least one trustee vacancy. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to take the first person who shows interest, for everyone’s sake. Hold out for the right person.


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