Resetting the dial on charity boards

Richard Brooks (Left)
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Richard Brooks shares his reflections on the importance of young people on boards: 

When I was growing up, I had no idea what a charity trustee was, or what it did. I didn’t know anyone who was one, nor could I point to anything in my life that was impacted by them, despite charitable organisations having a massive influence on my life.

Like lots of young people, I fell into being a trustee by accident. When I was 21, I ran to be President of my Students’ Union at the University of Hull – based in the UK’s City of Culture, 2017. If I’m being totally honest, I didn’t even know it was part of the job description; believing that being President meant simply shouting at University Senior Management and going to meetings.

It turns out that I was also responsible for a large charitable organisation, with a turnover in the millions and a staff team close to treble digits, delivering a multitude of services to 18,000 beneficiaries. 

Being both vice-chair of that board, and an active trustee for two years ended up being some of the most rewarding parts of the complex role of an elected student officer. The impact you can make is far larger, the stakes greater and the consequences more long-reaching.  

Since then, I’ve been a ‘young trustee’ continually, for a variety of organisations; national and incredibly local. I’ve learnt loads, and have made some significant and difficult decisions.  

Unfortunately, there isn’t always a clear conveyor belt for talented and diverse young people to end up being on Trustee Boards. What skills are required, where to apply or how, remain a mystery to many. 

There’s the emphasis on ‘experience’ when applying for boards as well as if being a financial manager for 20 years is somehow more valid than being a direct beneficiary of said organisation, or lived experience of those you’re seeking to support. (Clue: You need both for a dynamic and impactful board)

But the reality is that the biggest barrier to the diversification are boards themselves. Some of it is unconscious bias – choosing people who look and sound like you – in many others, because there aren’t proper processes in place, so friends and colleagues get appointed. Often, it’s the fact that the power of diversity in race, age, gender and other liberation groups aren’t prioritised, and even when it is, the board simply isn’t accessible – because of geography or timing or cost.

That’s a major problem, for a very simple reason. Diverse boards are better boards. They make better decisions, they consider different points of view and they stop stagnation.

Relying on a very small subset of the population, with similar values and views, is never a good idea for decision making.

But doing so in an environment in which change appears to be the new norm; where technology is fundamentally shifting the relationship between organisations and people, and the charity sector is perpetually under attack in the press and under the knife for funding – that’s something else altogether. 

So boards should challenge themselves; are there enough women on your boards, or people of colour? Does your board represent the diversity of talents across UK society? Are your beneficiaries a part of your highest decision making processes? 

Young and diverse trustees shouldn’t be an accident, they should be the norm. One day they will be.


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