The trouble with trusteeship

By Iona Joy 31 August 2012

Back in July, my colleague Sally blogged about Lord Hodgson’s proposal for payment of trustees. We’ve now written up a very lively debate on the topic from one of our trustee seminars. The debate rumbles on. The volunteering social networking site,, polled its members and found two-thirds were against Lord Hodgson’s proposals. But I’d quite like to see a more formal survey by someone like ACEVO or NCVO.

As someone who generally dislikes authority, I don’t like the idea that charities are told whether or not they can pay trustees. I like the idea that they might be free to make their own decisions, even if they make bad ones. If I were a charity, I might choose not to pay my trustees, especially if I could find good ones for free. I would probably conclude that paying trustees would be a slippery slope to a higher cost base. Even so, I’d like the option to do so without having to go to a woefully understaffed charity commission to get consent.

The paying trustees debate throws up a lot of questions. Does it increase board effectiveness? So few trustees are currently paid that we lack any evidence either way—we don’t know enough to know. Does paying trustees diversify recruitment? Someone like Kevin Carey at the RNIB couldn’t possibly afford to spend the necessary 2-3 days a week chairing the charity if he did it for free, because he also needs to generate an income to meet his needs. But anecdotally, the most frequent requests to the charity commission  appear to be for paying the great and good. I don’t think those types need the cash. Would paying trustees poison the ethos of the voluntary sector? Would it corrode the brand? Would it lead to smaller charities being unable to compete for trustees? There are lots of tricky questions on which we can only speculate.

But putting aside the payment debate, becoming a trustee can already be a mixed process. I had a wonderful time as a trustee of The Funding Network a few years ago. But my most recent experiences trying to become a trustee were less than perfect. Trustees should go through a selection process, but it needs to be resourced and conducted appropriately in recognition of the effort candidates take to apply. Anyone who applies is likely to be a supporter. They will have taken time to apply, and even if you don’t want or need them, you will certainly want to keep them on side. Respond promptly, keep applicants informed during the process, and offer feedback if you reject them.

I spent a sunny Sunday preparing my application to become a trustee of a £60m turnover national charity. The charity lost my (electronic) application, thereby causing me to miss the deadline. There was a lot of dispiriting correspondence with uninterested administrators about where it had got to in the interim before discovering that it had in fact gone into the unchecked charity spam box. We’re all friends now thanks to an apology from an anxious chief executive. But that’s only because I know him well enough to ring him and alert him to the deficiencies of the process. As it was being run from the trustee side, he had no idea of the hiccups. It didn’t take him long to twig that if it had happened to me, it could just as easily have happened to someone vastly more senior and powerful. Someone he might have wanted the board to consider very seriously, as well as impress with an efficient process.

I then applied to a much smaller charity, who were very friendly and informative as to process, and keen on my application. It involved a half-day trip out of town, lots of interviews, and quite a lot of prep. All good stuff and I was full of enthusiasm. Until the one-line rejection email from the chair, with no feedback other than the frequently-used fiction about the vast number of excellent applicants. This charity is very niche, and my sources hinted that applications weren’t numerous. A request for more detailed feedback met with no response. Did I lack the skills or knowledge you needed? Did you think I’d clash with other trustees or management? Was it something I said? I’m still none the wiser. So please, charities, give proper feedback—its useful for candidates to know for future applications. You don’t need to supply lots of detail, just some headlines. Five minutes effort in return for our hours.

I’m a devotee of the charity sector so I will keep trying. But I fear that someone else with better skills than me and less devotion could easily be deterred!

And I’m not even asking to be paid…