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If arts organisations are serious about developing their boards, they need to think hard about how they recruit and support new trustees, says Michelle Wright.

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When it comes to building their boards, most arts, culture and heritage organisations ask the same questions: what does a good board look like, how do I ensure diversity and how will good governance help us achieve our goals?

Our boards are simply not representative of wider society

Appointing trustees is a major priority – but it can be frustrating that there is no ‘go to’ source for recruiting board members. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has a database of roles in their Trustee Bank, and there are excellent listings by the Cultural Governance Alliance, Reach Volunteering and others – but a listing of opportunities often isn't enough. 

To find trustees who understand their responsibilities and have had some training, arts organisations need to improve as recruiting organisations. Often, organisations are not skilled in recruiting board members. And many don’t have adequate onboarding, induction and support systems once trustees are ready to commit.

So in partnership with the Clore Leadership programme, Cause4 and the Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy Programme are exploring how to reimagine the ‘board bank’ concept and bring to life the very simple equation:

Skilled and diverse trustees + effective trustee support = better governance

There are many common challenges:

Why do trustees accept a role without training?

It may be surprising that charities take on trustees with no experience and no knowledge of their legal and financial responsibilities - but this is very common. Just because someone is successful in their day job, that doesn’t mean they know what to do when it comes to running a charity.

Trustees should have some training and should know their responsibilities, as clearly outlined by the Charity Commission. If a trustee is not willing to build their knowledge of their responsibilities, then they should not be in the post – it really is that simple.

Cronyism

It’s shocking how many trustee boards are built in the image of their existing chair, recruited via a tap on the shoulder of friends and colleagues. Research by the Charity Commission has found that more than half of all trustees are recruited in this way and that many charities overrule their own policies on trustee terms.

Arts charities should be publicly accountable for their recruitment procedures and for declaring conflicts of interest. They also need to stick to the terms of service established for trustees, with no exceptions. Extended trustee terms are at odds with the basic principles of effective leadership. We need fresh input and new thinking to ensure the ongoing health of the arts sector.

Why is only one in 10 charity board roles advertised?

It is estimated by the charity Getting on Board that in the UK only 10% of the 90,000 or so available charity board roles are advertised, despite 21% of British adults being interested in joining a board. 

There are several reasons for this: with no single place to advertise for trustees, it can be expensive to recruit them. Headhunters charge huge sums – anything between £15,000 and £25,000, a steep cost for voluntary roles. 

But effective recruitment of trustees is essential. Arts organisations need to be savvy with their recruitment budgets, including maximising the use of free or low-cost advertising (such as social media) to reach the widest possible pool of candidates.

How do we make trustee boards more diverse?

Charity boards need to reflect the diversity of society in the broadest sense of the word – across gender, age, race, disability, religious beliefs and sexual orientation, so they can fully understand the challenges their beneficiaries face. 

Looking just at age, the average age of a trustee in the UK is 59 (likely to be higher for smaller charities), while 18-24-year-olds account for a mere 0.5% of all UK charity trustees. Our boards are simply not representative of wider society. Younger trustees are crucial to safeguarding the future of the charity sector.

We must intentionally build boards that reflect the beneficiaries and communities of charities. This takes time, care and skill. 

We also, too often, see skills audits that look for skills by rote, searching for finance, legal, marketing skills and so on – but these types of audits often have limited value. What we really need are trustees with the skills to meet the requirements of our business and strategic plans. The skills needed will change as our organisation’s plans change. 

But in the hierarchy of need, what we really require is trustees with time and energy. The most well-connected board is pointless if the individuals involved don’t have the time and energy to commit to engaging with the organisation.

Similarly, good practice is often lacking in how arts organisations support trustees when they are recruited:

Induction, peer support and ongoing training

We would hope that charities have effective induction processes for trustees. We also know that peer support programmes for trustees, and networking programmes such as Cause4’s Trustee Leadership Programme, can be effective. Ideally, there should be some framework for the ongoing training of trustees in key policy areas such as finance, fundraising and safeguarding.

In particular, if we are looking to appoint young trustees or trustees from more diverse backgrounds without a background in the charity sector, then we need to support them.

As we look to reimagine board banks for the future, we’re going to be calling out for individuals interested in becoming trustees, to receive training or to refresh their skills. We’ll then marry this up with a call-out for arts charities serious about developing their boards and committed to putting in place good induction, peer support and ongoing training. 

We can’t just close our eyes and hope for the best. Arts organisations need great and skilled trustees, but they also need to be able to actively recruit and support them. It’s this simple equation that makes for effective governance. A board bank of the future needs to encourage the sector to change – both when recruiting and supporting new trustees. 

Michelle Wright is CEO of Cause4 and Programme Director of the Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy Programme.
artsfundraising.org.uk

Tw @artsfundraising | @GovernCulture

This article is part of a series of articles on the theme Fundraising for the Future, sponsored and contributed by Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy. 

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