Article by Emma Watson, Head of Financial Planning and Advisory Services at Rathbone Investment Management
The majority of people have never considered it or if they have don’t know how to become a trustee or don’t believe that they would be able to apply for the position. However, becoming a trustee can be quite straightforward and yet is incredibly fulfilling and valuable both for career progression and also for personal development.
At Rathbones we work closely with Getting on Board, a charitable organisation with the mission to encourage people to consider becoming trustees. I’d never considered it before a friend mentioned that she was a charity trustee and when, a few months later, I heard Penny Wilson from Getting on Board speak I decided to go for it.
At the Getting on Board talk that I attended, Penny encouraged us to think about what was most important to us when considering what type of charity and trusteeship to choose. I immediately thought about my mum, who is a single parent and had always encouraged myself and my sister to go to university. And we were the first ones in the family to go because of her. However, I’ve always wondered what would have happened if she hadn’t been there to support us. With this in mind I went away and searched online at CharityJob and discovered the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL). NNECL is designed to help care-experienced young people who don’t have that adult in their life to support them in studying at further education or university levels.
From there I spoke with the board’s chair, who gave me more background on the charity and what they were looking for from a trustee. There are support structures in place for care-experienced young people to make sure they’re getting the right opportunities and treatment, but they’re not very well joined up and can often be improved. For example currently, 10,000 young people leave care every year and only 12% make it into higher education. In the rest of the population, it’s 45% and there’s a higher drop-out rate among care-experienced students, too. I really believe in the work that the NNECL do, and while I was warned that it would be hard work, I felt I could make a difference and therefore accepted the role of Treasurer.
The warning that it would be hard work was definitely true too! I would describe NNECL when I joined as a start-up charity rather than a more established charity where perhaps being a trustee doesn’t take up too much time. No matter what type of charity it is, it can be daunting to dive into an entirely new role and sector. When I first joined the board, I definitely had some imposter syndrome. I was surrounded by people who knew so much more about higher education and the care system and so it’s hard not to feel like a third wheel. However, fortunately the charity was hiring for a new director and I, having hiring experience, could jump into this task and help. Being part of the recruitment process really helped to build up my participation and from that point felt completely comfortable on the board.
Ultimately what I have learnt is that while you may not have all the background knowledge of the charity’s sector, everyone will have skills that are useful for the board and so lack of experience should not stop you from putting yourself forward. From this experience I have learnt so much that I would never have learnt by any professional route including training to become an honorary treasurer, and training about board governance, all of which has been fascinating.
Becoming a trustee isn’t only useful for personal development either. Becoming a trustee can help develop skills that will ultimately benefit you in your own career, which is why Getting on Board encourages young people to explore this option as a way to boost their CV as well.
Be clear with yourself and with the charity how much of a commitment you can make, and what the experience will give to you. From there you will both be on the same page, and able to assess whether it’s the correct role for you.
Spend time fact-checking and thinking it over. It has to be a charity in an area where you have an interest. A good test for this is whether you could explain to a friend or family member why you’re doing it. If you can’t, it might not be the right position for you.
If you’ve decided that you’d like to become a trustee it can be difficult to then know where to find the right position. A lot of trustee roles aren’t ever advertised with most vacancies filled from the existing trustees’ networks which perpetuates the lack of diversity in charity boards. However there are resources available for those interested, such as the free guide that Getting on Board have compiled alongside Rathbones. Also, as many of those 90,000 vacancies won’t be advertised, if there is a charity that means something to you or interests you, it can be worth approaching them to ask whether they are looking for trustees. If it’s your first trustee role, it’s best to start small and local.
Becoming a trustee has certainly opened the door to a whole new experience to me and I wish that I had decided to become one sooner. I’d encourage everyone – no matter their experience- to consider the benefits that becoming a trustee can bring to you, as well as the benefits you can bring to a charity.