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Ten years ago, while most 21-year-olds were exploring their freedom, Toks Dada was spending his evenings and weekends reading company management reports, annotating business plans, and scrutinising financial accounts. Here he explains why.

Violinists playing

Larisa Birta

At the time, the proposition seemed simple: Sinfonia Cymru would benefit from a fresh, young perspective and I would gain experience as a trustee of a professional arts organisation. Having founded my own company a couple of years earlier, I had views on the orchestral sector. I was in a position for my voice to be heard. During only my second board meeting, I presented a paper on the future development of a 21st century orchestra. It felt like the ultimate privilege.

Almost ten years on, as a trustee at Welsh National Opera, I’m still the youngest person in the room. There are others who have started their trustee journey in their twenties, but they’re few and far between. Where are all the young people? When it comes to board membership, do we need a new approach?

When I joined Sinfonia Cymru, its board and executive were deliberating on what it meant to be a young professional orchestra. It made sense to invite a young professional onto the board for the first time, particularly one connected with the young people in the organisation. It meant their voices could more readily be heard.

But beyond representation, the single biggest argument in favour of more young people on our boards is resilience. In a post-pandemic world, the need for young trustees could not be more vital. Not necessarily because our point of view is more important, but because our point of view is different, and the entire industry could benefit from this difference.

Benefits for boards, employers and the sector

By diversifying membership, boards benefit from diversity of thought regarding the challenges facing the sector. In particular, the exploitation of digital technology and development of audience strategies can be much better informed by young people who are digital natives, tapped into popular culture and familiar with approaches adopted by companies from other creative industries.

But it’s not only the organisations that stand to benefit. It’s also the employers of those young trustees who are developing sharpened strategic thinking and an appreciation for the bigger picture. This is of even more importance in a post-pandemic world where squeezed budgets can lead to professional development falling down the list of spending priorities.

Longer term - as discussed recently in a blog - enabling a range of voices helps cultivate future leaders. Investing in young people on boards, allowing them to acquire skills early in their career, equips them to be leaders of the future. This is one way of collectively fuelling the talent pipeline.

Whether for the board, the company or the sector more broadly, the presence of young trustees breeds resilience on multiple levels. Which begs the question, if young people are so important to the future of our sector, where are they all? And what can we do to attract them?

Alternative approaches to recruitment

From my own trustee experience, including in recruitment in the ‘traditional’ model, I know the pool of prospective trustees is relatively narrow. If we’re serious about attracting more young people to our boards, it’s time to consider alternative approaches to ensure cultural governance is fit for purpose for today’s world.

1.    Value lived experience 
When boards acknowledge the need to diversify, their limited criteria often lead to a limited pool to choose from. A board position with decision making powers often demands people to already hold experience of trustee responsibilities, usually people towards the end of their working career. Essentially it values years of experience over lived experience. We need to re-define what being a trustee entails and broaden the selection criteria to include lived experience as well as learned experience?

2.    Consider safety in numbers    
When boards commit to recruiting a young person, it’s often one individual in isolation. I think we need to experiment with new governance models that go beyond the individual and ensure a better support system for prospective young trustees - models outside the subsided arts. For example, larger organisations could support smaller ones - or collectives of individuals - to amplify their work. In return, smaller organisations and/or collectives could contribute their innovative thinking to their larger partners.

3.    Be realistic about money
When considering potential young trustees in our sector, boards should also look to artists. I have lost track of the number of conversations I had with artists dreaming up solutions to the problems of the pandemic. The current generation of (freelance) artists are more than performers, they have views about the future of our sector. But being a trustee often requires salaried employment to be able to give time for free. Many boards demand donations too. So, over and above paid expenses, we need to consider offering paid board positions for young/freelance artists to be able to contribute. If artists don’t work, they don’t get paid. And we need an urgent review of the often unspoken requirement to donate, which automatically excludes those without financial stability.  

4.    Treat trusteeships as professional development
Employers can also play a crucial role by treating young people’s board membership as professional development, rather than as an unwelcome distraction. For this they need the support to take time away from day job to serve. Senior staff will often do that, so why should those in more junior positions not be able to?

5.    Nurture the next generation
Almost a year ago, Manchester-based writer and content producer Junior Akinola, at the age of 28, became the UK’s first young Chair of a major performing arts venue. For most companies, this would be unheard of. But in this scenario, a new young trustee worked alongside an outgoing trustee during a handover period, taking on full responsibilities six months later. This isn’t a call for all trustees over a certain age to step aside, but rather a call for boards to consider proactively filling that upcoming vacancy with someone under the age of 35. 

A good example of good practice is Spitalfields Music and its Trainee Trustee Scheme. As well as training, it offers observer status at board meetings, a board ‘buddy’, and prep sessions to de-mystify the world of board documentation and decision-making. I couldn’t be more thrilled that someone from my own team at Southbank Centre is among the first cohort. I hope more organisations follow this lead.

So, the big question is: what can we all do to ensure we augment the pool of young trustees for the future? Perhaps you’re a company with the resources to develop a trainee scheme; or a board with the opportunity to review its recruitment practices; or perhaps you’re the leader of a team with an intelligent young person that just needs a little time away from their day job. However small, we can all play our part. If we do, then perhaps in another ten years’ time, I will no longer be the youngest person in the room.

Toks Dada is Head of Classical Music at Southbank Centre.

 @SouthbankCentre | @ToksDada

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