Alastair Keatinge: Young trustees are needed and employers can help

Alastair Keatinge is Partner and Head of Charities and Social Enterprises at Lindsays
Alastair Keatinge is Partner and Head of Charities and Social Enterprises at Lindsays
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This year’s Trustees’ Week on 12-17 November featured an excellent example of social media guaranteed to arrest the attention. ‘Are you a young trustee?’, ran the tweet, and then continued ‘You are if you are under the age of 57!’

As well as making many people in their 40s and 50s feel ‘young’, the tweet effectively highlighted a campaign to promote trustee diversity, and specifically to get 250 charities to pledge to recruit a young trustee, aged 18-26.

The need for an initiative like this was raised in last year’s Taken on Trust report. Among its findings was that the average age of charity trustees is 60-62, that 64 per cent are male, 92 per cent are white, and 51 per cent are retired. Over 8,000 charities have boards with an average age of over 75.

While the figures are based on trustees in England and Wales, there’s no reason to believe the position in Scotland is significantly different.

Behind those headline figures, the report contained another statistic which received less publicity but is equally concerning: over seven out of ten trustees have been recruited directly by the chair or fellow board members.

Without belittling the brilliant work done by these trustees, it’s not just the diversity and age range of trustees we need to widen, it’s the methods we use to find them.

In defence of the third sector, it’s easier said than done, for many charities, to find young trustees – especially when they have limited resources to recruit or advertise. But a good starting point for advice is the Charity Commission’s ‘Finding and supporting young trustees: A checklist for charities’.

It has good pointers for connecting with young people, such as building relationships with colleges, universities and student unions. These connections can be a good source not just of trustees, but young volunteers and future donors too.

The checklist also has sensible suggestions on legal considerations around having young trustees, and giving appropriate support, mentoring or training. These points are important if charities are serious about diversity and want to avoid tokenism.

In fact, the importance of giving appropriate support applies with all trustees, not just younger ones. Training is highly recommended, covering not just the legal duties of trustees, but broader governance issues.

The Trustees’ Week campaign to encourage young trustees is welcome, and featured excellent initiatives such as a speed networking event for charities and young people. But there’s one important point that wasn’t really been drawn out: that diversifying the age profile of charity trustees requires input from employers as well as charities and individuals.

Trusteeship has obvious benefits for charities and individuals, with the research for Taken on Trust showing that nine out of ten trustees think their role is rewarding. But often overlooked is that employers benefit too – young trustees will develop their soft skills, networks and connections, for example, though sitting on boards.

In addition, supporting staff to work with charities and causes they believe in can be a powerful recruitment tool for employers in all sectors.

Yet we too often hear from young trustees that they feel hesitant or guilty about asking for time off to attend occasional board meetings or other key events. Young people who took on trustee or volunteering roles when they were students often feel unable to continue them once they get their first job. It’s not coincidence that over half of trustees are retired.

So, let’s add a message to this year’s Trustees’ Week campaigns: that trustee diversity is a matter not just for charities and individuals, but for employers too.

At Lindsays we are backing this already with a number of partners and staff across our offices who help charities through being trustees. Organisations such as EPIC Assist, Cutting Edge Theatre, St Columba’s Hospice, The Sportman’s Charity, Scottish Association for Mental Health and LifeCare are a few of those our people support in this way. We encourage other employers to do the same.

Alastair Keatinge is Partner and Head of Charities and Social Enterprises at Lindsays