Charity trustees – finding the right fit


 Sandy Macdonald on how to find the right trustees for your board

TFN Guest's photo

5th September 2017 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

I first became a charity trustee in 2006 and since then I’ve recruited fellow trustees at several charities, and helped support a wide range of senior leaders here at Standard Life Aberdeen to join charity Boards. Finding the best fit can be a challenge for charities and trustees. Here are some of the things I’ve found it’s important to consider.

Tips for getting the best from your board of trustees

Understand people’s motivation

When I first joined a board I wanted to give something back and broaden my perspective and skills. In my experience, many people who work in larger companies can find themselves working on only a relatively narrow aspect of their professional skills and are keen to expand – it’s important to bear that in mind. 

Recruit for potential

Just like other sectors, sometimes charity boards are guilty of fishing in the same pond they've always done, or only considering trustees who have perfect experience. There are pitfalls in this approach, from group-think to lack of diversity.

Sometimes the best candidates bring excellent professional skills and enthusiasm, but are undertaking their first board role. Think about what you really need, and what you can teach. If you’re having trouble attracting candidates, then as well as services like Goodmoves, you could try professional societies such as the Instittue of Chartered Accountants Scotalnd, the Marketing Society or approach big companies, many of whom support their people to volunteer. It’s also easy to reach out on social media, especially LinkedIn.

Focus on the overall team and outcomes

As well as the skills you need round the table, many boards need to balance who has more time to pick up stakeholder engagement activities.

You may also want to be flexible around the type of involvement or term of appointment. If you have a specific strategic imperative e.g. if digital marketing is going to be a priority, or you’re about to embark on a major organisational change, can you agree with someone that they will join you for a shorter period of time to provide expert oversight? 

Sandy Macdonald

Sandy Macdonald

Induction and expectation setting are as important

There's no point saying it only needs two minutes a month if that's not true, it just leads to issues in the long term. You don't want a trustee just ticking a box on involvement anyway. Agree on expectations in an honest, two-way conversation. Find ways to support and up-skill, for example using induction sessions, or buddying and mentoring of new board members.

Tips for charity trustees looking to get the most out of the experience

Know what you’re looking to get from a role

When I joined Children 1st, I had previously been a trustee of a youth charity, and had developed a curiosity about earlier intervention. I also knew they wanted to improve their marketing, and could see opportunities to add value. As well as the board’s statutory responsibilities, target specific areas where you can make a difference.

Go in with your eyes open

Being a trustee is not an easy gig, nor should it be. Your expertise or enthusiasm can be what helps a charity avoid a financial, regulatory or reputational issue and that could be hugely rewarding. But, you should know what you’re getting yourself into, so ask the right questions and don’t be afraid to voice a concern.

Understand processes, develop relationships

One of the trickiest things to get right is to stay out of day-to-day management because you’re non-executive, while knowing enough about what’s really going on so you can fulfil your very real responsibilities as a director. That’s unless you have a dual role and have agreed to support on elements of day to day operational activity too.

In my experience the key is to have good performance indicators, supported by personal relationships so you can ask the right questions about that information. It’s also helpful to agree a clear scheme of delegation so you know where lines are drawn. If you’re at a board meeting and find you’re discussing collection tins in a provincial town, when you should be discussing funding diversity and financial health indicators, you know you’re operating at the wrong level.

Like many of my colleagues I can, hand-on-heart, say that being a trustee of a charity, while sometimes challenging, has been one of the most rewarding elements of my life. It’s helped me develop skills, make friends and given me a feeling of purpose where I’m really making a positive difference in the world. A little work upfront on both sides to ensure it fits well for both parties will pay off a million times over in the long run.

Sandy Macdonald is head of sustainability at Standard Life Aberdeen