Why aren’t more young people trustees?

By Jane Thomas 29 July 2010

At university and school lots of my friends held positions of responsibility in clubs and groups, whether they were head boy, treasurer of their football team, or even head of a student union. Now I could probably count on one hand the number of people who hold a position like this, outside work.

The Charity Commission website notes that young people are seriously under-represented on charity trustee boards.

At present, less than 4,000 of the 800,000 plus charity trustees in England and Wales are under 25 – that’s less than 1%. Yet these young people can bring enthusiasm, different skills and a fresh perspective that is valuable to many charities. In our report on trusteeship last year, Board matters, we also noted that trusteeship could be a useful occupation for job seekers in the recession, as a way for people to learn new skills and add something valuable to their CV.

So what has stopped young people seeking positions of responsibility, such as trusteeship, once they leave university?

The obvious answer is time. Many young people, particularly those who work in industries with long working hours, feel neither able, nor inclined to give up their spare time to volunteer as a trustee. They may also lack confidence in their suitability, and assume that charities want trustees with much more experience under their belts. But many young people have really valuable skills that charities are calling out for. At NPC, we believe that if the government is serious about promoting volunteering and getting more people involved in delivering its vision of the Big Society, then it needs to take more steps to address this. One recommendation we put forward in our upcoming update on trusteeship for example, (also highlighted in Board matters last year), is for the Government and other employers to consider giving employees a right to time off work to undertake voluntary tasks such as being a trustee. This, we believe, could help increase diversity and the number of people on boards. Employers could also provide training to help them fulfil the role of trustee as effectively as possible.

A second reason why more young people aren’t stepping forward to become trustees is a lack of awareness. I have friends in the private sector who volunteer as mentors or do pro bono work for their firm, but few of them know that they could be a charity trustee, or understand what this role would involve. Many are scared of the liabilities attached to the role. To address this maybe we need to see more charities going to universities to speak about the role young people can play on boards? Or maybe HR departments in big companies need to promote trusteeship to their staff as a feasible and attractive option? As we discuss in our update, there are an increasing number of services and resources to support trustee recruitment, which can help to overcome this barrier. Some of these organisations, such as Getting on Board, are working with professional associations, employers and employees to highlight the benefits of board-level volunteering with charities, schools and public bodies.

At NPC a number of our staff members in their twenties sit on trustee boards or are school governors (not that surprising perhaps considering the nature of NPC’s work). Look out for a blog next week from one of our staff members on what it’s like being a young trustee and what the role involves. We think it would be great if more young people realised that trusteeship was not a position only reserved for middle-aged, retired men, and instead saw it as a great opportunity to get some board-level experience while at the same time helping a worthwhile cause.