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Jessica Stockford tells how Arts & Business’ programme to recruit young employees of big companies to arts boards has proved to be a successful initiative − to the surprise of some.

Image of young people at a governance training workshop
A governance training workshop

Scott Williams

“Why on earth would I want someone on the board who knows less than I do?” This was the response I got from the chief executive of a national portfolio organisation. We were holding a series of exploratory conversations with arts and cultural charities to pilot an initiative to develop high-potential younger people as trustees of arts boards. It was not the first negative reaction we got, but five years on responses to the programme are pretty much without exception universally positive. It seems that ‘knowing less’ can mean ‘contributing more’.

Recent research from the Charity Commission highlighted the ‘pale, male and stale’ complexion in charity governance, that is also mirrored in the corporate sector. According to this research, the average mean age of a trustee is 57. The recent Davies review ‘Women on Boards’ warned of the perils of homogeneity and ‘people like us’ at board level and concluded: “There is growing evidence to show that diverse boards are better boards, delivering financial out-performance and stock market growth.”

Recent research from the Charity Commission highlighted the ‘pale, male and stale’ complexion in charity governance

So, if more diverse boards take better and more responsible decisions by reducing the risk of ‘group think’, why aren’t arts boards better at attracting the leaders of tomorrow? These future influencers are also future funders, investors, donors and partners to the arts. We want to embed a seam of arts champions into business early in their careers.

The generation Y demographic we work with tends to be defined by those who are ‘uber tech-savvy’, in pursuit of a decent work/life balance and whose values are rooted in citizenship and experience-seeking. They are able to use and exploit social media, leverage their networks and provide insight into the ‘urban arts eclectic’ or ‘fun, fashion and friends’ segment.

Using feedback from participants we have worked hard to create a programme that supports our cohort in their first non-executive/trustee role by providing a structured learning framework that includes governance and charity law training. This includes input from lawyers, funders, cultural leaders and programme alumni to bring credibility and reassurance. We also provide an external mentor and a board buddy from the host organisation to help the new trustee navigate some of the more nuanced aspects of governance, including group dynamics, board culture and influence. We help the individual build a strong and effective relationship with a board, navigating due diligence, building chemistry and identifying potential opportunities and challenges to consider. This can take between six to nine months to achieve but this slow-burn approach ensures that the candidate is able to start their role with confidence and authority.

The programme works best for an individual when they are supported by their employer. This usually means that it is part of a talent development or community investment programme where employees can leverage greater access to resources, networks and sometimes internal funds. Organisations such as Deutsche Bank, BSkyB, PwC and Centrica have bought into the programme because they see the benefits that non-executive directorships early in a career can bring: the responsibilities of a trustee are usually way above the employee’s pay grade; the board role is a dynamic, experiential piece of learning and the opportunity to build powerful peer networks is highly attractive to businesses.

We launch the programme with a networking event in July each year. This is an opportunity for arts organisations, employers and individuals to find out more and hear from previous participants. The application is competitive with over 100 applicants for 15 places each year.

For arts organisations, the programme not only offers valuable professional expertise, but access to well developed networks, corporate resources and focussed, energetic board members who are clear about their roles and responsibilities, have a passion for the arts and a willingness to get their hands dirty if necessary. For some, inviting a 24-year-old into a valuable board position might seem like a risk. Laura Dauny, Corporate Associate at Addleshaw Goddard, an international law firm, was introduced to UP Projects. Emma Underhill, UP’s chief executive, reflected: “Initially we felt that Laura would not have the experience and gravitas that comes with a more senior board member, so we invited her to join as an observer where she could build up her contribution as an adviser to the board over a period of six months. She then provided us with such valuable and strategic legal advice and expertise that we decided to co-opt her on to the board immediately.”

Lucy Perman, executive director of Clean Break, acknowledges the value and energy that a younger board member brings. Alice Millest, an analyst at Ares Investments, joined Clean Break in 2011. Lucy says: “In a relatively short space of time, Alice has made a huge impact on our governance, ambitions, confidence and forward plans. She has thrown herself wholeheartedly into the role and has brought to us energy, skills, passion, contacts, thoughtfulness, candour and new ideas. Her particular finance skills and understanding of the world of corporate finance have been timely for us with the development of our business plan, funding plans and diversifying our funding portfolio.”

For Alex Swallow, chief executive of Young Charity Trustees, it is a no-brainer: “When charities are crying out for talent, it’s a shame to restrict that because of age. You miss out on a huge sector of the population – the same goes for women and people with disabilities or from ethnic backgrounds. If you’re engaged in any way with younger people, it is incomprehensible not to have that demographic represented on your board. Which funder wouldn’t want these voices involved at high levels of governance?”

In an increasingly hostile operating environment, arts organisations need a market edge, an entrepreneurial spirit and a fully engaged board. Opening your boardroom doors to someone who might know less than you might be one of the ways to get ahead.

Jessica Stockford is Board Development Manager (London and South East) at Arts & Business.

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