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A Charity Commission report recently revealed that the average trustee is white, male and aged 57. To coincide with Trustees’ Week, Neal Green urges everyone to find out more about sitting on an arts board.

Image of Trustees' Week 2013 poster

“The biggest benefits of trusteeship are getting to use my skills to help my community and learning new ones that will help me in the future.” This is how one charity trustee responded when asked what the best thing about the role is, yet research suggests that almost half of charities have at least one vacancy on their board at any time. Many arts organisations are charities – there are over 29,000 registered charities across England and Wales whose objects come under arts, culture, heritage and science. These are run by trustees, the people with ultimate responsibility for directing the business of the charity. They play a vital role, volunteering their time and working together to make the decisions that really matter about the charity's finances, activities and plans for the future.

This week (4 to 11 November) marks Trustees’ Week, a nationwide campaign which highlights the work that trustees do. It draws attention to the opportunities for adults of all ages and backgrounds to get involved and make a real difference − no formal qualifications are usually needed, and lots of organisations need more trustees. Led by the Charity Commission, it is now in its fourth year. Over 50 events across the UK are planned, ranging from ‘starter’ seminars on how to become a trustee, to speed-matching events and networking evenings with local charities, to focused talks on specific trusteeship issues.

Trusteeship offers many things of value to the individual, including new skills in a whole range of areas

Many charities fall into the trap of recruiting from a very small pool of personal connections, sector networks and via ‘word of mouth’ appointments. This leads to a lack of diversity on boards, highlighted by ‘A Breath of Fresh Air’, a Charity Commission report, which revealed that the average trustee across England and Wales is white, male and aged 57. It is vital for charities to broaden their recruitment methods in order to reap the benefits of a range of different ages, backgrounds and perspectives around the boardroom table.

Charities benefit from the range of skills and expertise that their trustees bring, but it is not only them who gain the advantages here. Trusteeship offers many things of value to the individual, including new skills in a whole range of areas, from finance to management, to strategic decision-making. Trustees learn about how charities are run and gain experience in such areas that can be hugely advantageous for their professional development or as a way of returning to the workplace, particularly in the current job climate. After all, how many people get the opportunity in their day job to make decisions about their organisation’s future plans and resources, and to turn a vision into reality?

People often become trustees to 'give something back'. Trustees have a central role in the work of their charity and can gain a huge amount of satisfaction from ensuring the services it provides meet the needs of its beneficiaries. Sometimes charities recruit trustees who hold experience in certain fields (for example, fundraising or communications), offering you a chance to use your experience to benefit your community and broaden what you already know.

Trustees’ Week offers an excellent starting point to get involved. Check out the website for events in your area and places to look for vacancies or identify a charity you are passionate about and write to them expressing your interest. You can search for arts and culture charities on the Charity Commission’s online Register of charities.

Case study

Alice Millest works in the city as an investment analyst for Ares Management Limited. Since September 2011 she has been a trustee on the Board of Clean Break, an organisation that uses theatre for personal and political change, working with women affected by the criminal justice system and producing acclaimed plays by leading female playwrights. The organisation delivers a programme of theatre productions, new writing projects and drama-based education from its North London studios and in prisons.

“I was originally drawn to the idea of becoming a trustee as I wanted to be able to volunteer in a way that allowed me to apply my skills and experience in a powerful manner. It also gets you involved in a very strategic level of decision-making, which as a young person you rarely get exposed to.

“My family has always had a strong interest in the arts and the criminal justice system, which drew me towards Clean Break. From a young age I was exposed to the powerful impact that the arts can achieve in prisons, and also on the wider audience, informing opinions about prison residents. Clean Break particularly appealed to me because it is an all-female organisation. Working in finance often means I am the only woman in my team or in a meeting, so being able to contrast and complement that with Clean Break board meetings has been a breath of fresh air. It has also been a very rich personal experience, building a network of hugely impressive women from a wide range of professions and backgrounds at a time when my feminist views and interests were just starting to develop.

“I originally became involved in Clean Break via the Arts and Business YPOAB (Young Professionals on Arts Boards) Programme. They were great at training me for trusteeships and opening doors once I knew what I wanted. I think the way to find the right organisation is to do the research yourself, as well as a bit of soul searching.

“The amount of board meetings depends on the charity – some hold them quarterly, some monthly. In my case these are held on weekday evenings. I have become involved in the finance committee and am also starting to work closely with the fundraising team. This entails an extra four meetings a year and a few breakfasts or lunches with the development team or potential donors. This is another way in which I feel I can be particularly useful, especially since the organisation has been awarded funding through Catalyst Arts from Arts Council England to develop its fundraising model and match-fund all new private giving we generate. Becoming a trustee is a unique and hugely rewarding experience – in particular for those who have a passion for a sector that perhaps isn’t a part of their day job. The work of Clean Break is incredibly inspiring and the women who make it possible are remarkable and talented people, so to get to feel that you are in some small way helping that happen is extremely empowering.”

Neal Green is Senior Policy Adviser at the Charity Commission.

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