Inspiring the charity trustees of the future

29 October 2021

In conversation: Emma Watson, head of financial planning and advisory services at Rathbones and Penny Wilson, CEO of Getting on Board, discuss the rewards and challenges of being a charity trustee.

With a long history of managing charity assets, Rathbones’ commitment to the third sector also extends to encouraging our staff to serve as charity trustees.

This includes working closely with charitable organisation Getting on Board, which is on a mission to encourage people to consider becoming trustees and promotes good practice in trustee recruitment.

Following a training session for Rathbones’ staff and clients on ‘How to become a charity trustee’, presented by Getting on Board’s Penny Wilson, our own Emma Watson was so inspired she went on to take up her first trusteeship.

To celebrate Trustees’ Week (1-5 Nov), and with UK charities desperately short of trustees, we reunited Penny and Emma to talk about their experiences. We hope their conversation inspires others.

Penny: What first drew you to becoming a charity trustee?

Emma: Partly it was joining Rathbones, which looks after many charities’ investments, and also chatting to a friend who was a trustee, but the final lightbulb moment was attending your Getting on Board session, which convinced me I should go for it. I was astonished that there are 90,000 trustee vacancies nationwide, so I think your work in encouraging people to think about their skills and putting them to use for charities is really important.

Penny: That chat with a friend is a really common starting point. Many of us think that trusteeship isn’t open to us until we’re older so being encouraged by a friend or colleague can be really important.

So, what happened next? Which charity did you choose and why?

Emma: You encouraged us to think about something that's important to us and I thought about my mum. She's a single parent who encouraged me and my sister to go to university in a family where nobody else did. She did a brilliant job, but I've always wondered what would have happened if she hadn't been there.

So, I searched online at CharityJob as you suggested and discovered the National Network for the Education of Care Leavers (NNECL). I learned that it’s aimed at helping care-experienced young people who don’t have that adult in their life, someone like my mum, to support them in studying at further education or university level.

I got in touch and had a face-to-face meeting with the board’s chair. She was very honest about the amount of work there was to do because it was a start-up charity with no staff, and then asked if I would be the treasurer. For me, transformation is something I enjoy and hard work’s not a problem, but I also realised that NNECL’s work was something I really believed in. 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, so NNECL’s work in pulling all that together is vital.

Penny: What I hear loud and clear from you is that being passionate about the cause and feeling you can make a difference is essential to finding the right charity.

But new trustees often tell me they suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ when they first get onto a board of trustees. How did you feel?

Emma: I was surrounded by people who knew so much more than me about higher education and the care system and initially I did feel like a third wheel – there just to make up the numbers.

But then we needed to recruit a new director and that’s something I know a lot about, so I was straight into CVs, interview questions and so on. Being part of that recruitment process really helped to build my participation and now I feel completely comfortable on the board.

Penny: Feeling a bit out of your depth at first is pretty typical and I think as an aspiring trustee it’s really important to always ask about induction, training and development opportunities that the charity can help you with.

"It's been like sticking my head into somebody else's career and learning about it. I’ve learnt so much that I wouldn't have done by any route professionally, including training to become an honorary treasurer, and training about board governance, which was fascinating."

So, what have you learned through being a trustee?

Emma: It's been like sticking my head into somebody else's career and learning about it. I’ve learnt so much that I wouldn't have done by any route professionally, including training to become an honorary treasurer, and training about board governance, which was fascinating.

And of course, I've learned even more about why NNECL’s work is worthwhile. For example, did you know 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.


Penny: What are you bringing back into your role at Rathbones from this experience of being a trustee?

Emma: Well, I think philanthropy needs to be a bigger thing in every company than it is now, and I can help clients identify if they can afford to give money and how they want to give.

Penny: Listening to your passion about your trustee work, I think you’ve gained a kind of self-worth in knowing you’re making a difference. It sounds cheesy but people tell me this is the number one reason they became a trustee.

Emma: Thinking of myself as a volunteer and part of a team trying to do something positive does feel really good.

Penny: I’m always saying anyone can be a trustee – and that includes younger people.

There’s such a range of soft skills a younger trustee can gain – from presentations and chairing meetings to talking to people from different backgrounds. And one thing I have heard repeatedly from workshops with people under 30 is ‘I want to be in charge’ – that can be a real motivator for someone who doesn’t get that experience in their day job.

But I think you need to be realistic, so if you’ve had fewer years in work then it's likely you've probably been in fewer committee environments and you’ve got fewer years of professional experience so you may need to join a smaller or more local charity.

And whatever their age, trustees should never be shy about asking for training.

What questions do you think people should be asking themselves if they’re thinking of becoming a trustee?

Emma: Two fundamental ones: what do I want to give to the role and what do I want to get out of it? You need to be clear about how much commitment you can make, but it’s also got to give you something back, otherwise it won’t work out.

And just because a charity has asked you to be a trustee you don't have to accept – spend time fact-finding and thinking it over. Just imagine if you had to explain to a friend or relative why you’re doing it. If you can't do that, then maybe you need to rethink.

Penny: In fact, 90% of trustee vacancies are never advertised and being ‘tapped on the shoulder’ by a friend or acquaintance is still the most common way of becoming a trustee. It’s a weird cultural hangover – most charities have always done it like that, even though they wouldn't dream of recruiting staff that way. It’s something Getting on Board is trying to change and our free guide, sponsored by Rathbones, describes how you can approach charities directly, as well as looking at vacancy sites.

It's a bit like dating – it's got to be right for both sides! You need to talk to the charity to understand where it’s at, where it’s going and the challenges it faces. Most charities should give you an honest answer and these questions will reflect well on an aspiring trustee – they show you’re serious and you've done your homework.

Emma: I'm just 18 months into my trusteeship and I'm already feeling like I will hate to leave when my time comes. How do you feel about moving on from the trustee roles you’ve had?

Penny: I'm on my fourth trusteeship now and moving on can be hard but the charity governance code and charities’ own rules mean it needs to happen. We should leave the charity in a good place, so we should ensure no one is indispensable and the charity can cope when trustees come and go. And don’t forget trustees should be challenging each other – if it’s the same group of people after 15 years, it's highly likely they won't be as effective as they should be.

Emma: Yes, obviously it's great if people get along, but this is governance, and it needs to be done properly. You’re there to hold each other to account so it’s not a friendship group, it’s a professional body.

How would you advise charities about achieving greater diversity in the make-up of their board of trustees?

Penny: Charities should be doing all they can to maximise their impact. So, for example, if you’re providing a food bank service and none of your trustees have ever used a food bank, I would question whether you're making the right decisions.

People with lived experience like that are under-represented on boards, as are people of colour and disabled people. We need a relevant mix of people on our boards, but only a third of trustees are women and just a third are under 50. In fact, our research has found that 60% of charities say their boards don’t reflect the communities they serve.

However, we feel there’s an exciting opportunity to change things because people like the sound of trusteeship once they know about it.

"It’s certainly opened the door on a whole new experience for me. I look back now and feel like I've wasted a lot of years when I could have been doing this."

Emma: It’s certainly opened the door on a whole new experience for me. I look back now and feel like I've wasted a lot of years when I could have been doing this.

Penny: It’s so rewarding to hear that. And so many people who become trustees tell me they wish they hadn’t waited until retirement before they started.

There may be lots of vacancies but there are 700,000 people who are already trustees in England and Wales – and a quarter of them are trustees of more than one organisation which shows that plenty of people really get something out of it. And I hope many more will be inspired to do so in the future.

For further information on becoming a charity trustee, the following links may be useful:

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