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Trustees now need to be professional volunteers. Is that a good thing?

Five good practice goals to recruit and appraise charity trustees.
Joe Saxton

I will confess to being a recent convert. I love working with a recruitment agency to find new trustees. The quality of applicants and the inclusiveness of the process improve the governance process beyond measure. Indeed, I now am of the belief that the sector should no more appoint a trustee without an open and transparent recruitment process, than they should a CEO.

These changes in my own personal attitude are in part down to a wider change in the way that trusteeship is, or at least should be, viewed. Trustees are now professional volunteers. Trustees need to see their roles in just the same way that any employees see their job. While a trustee may be unpaid, their responsibilities are no less real or substantial than any senior management role. So trustees need to be recruited, inducted, managed, trained and appraised in the way that any other senior staff would be. Here would be a few things that could look like in practice:

  • Trustees are recruited in an open and transparent way
  • Posts are filled based on specific needs on the trustee board
  • Chairs are specifically recruited to fill that role
  • New trustees are inducted and trained
  • Trustee performance is reviewed and appraised

These five areas are all good, laudable goals. I support them all – well almost. The practice of being a trustee, being a professional volunteer, of being in a role that has standards and minimum expected performance, is much easier in theory than in practice. Why go to the hassle of time-consuming recruitment when somebody knows somebody who’d be really good?  Why not let so-and-so be chair if they are keen. The list of reasonable excuses is long and flows easily and I have seen all of them, been part of them, in the ten or so trustee roles that I have had.

Of my five good practice goals, it is the last one that I struggle the most with. Appraising trustees is much easier in theory than in practice. While I used to think that interviewing people to be a trustee was a little tacky, I now see it as pretty straightforward. Not so with trustee appraisals.

Part of the problem is the difficulty is deciding how to judge a trustee’s performance. If they don’t turn up to meetings, they probably have a busy day job. If they are quiet in board meetings, the topics may not be ones they want to contribute on. I recently had to look at reappointing trustees and struggled to work out how to evaluate somebody’s performance. In the end, I settled for a chat on the phone to see how they felt about things. Yet a chat on the phone is hardly cutting-edge governance practice is it?!

Compared to members of staff, the ability to evaluate trustee performance I find much harder. When I try and rationalise this it’s for a variety of reasons. It’s much harder for a trustee to be proactive on an issue than it is for a member of staff. It’s harder for a trustee to really scrutinise staff, especially if staff are unresponsive or uninterested. Equally, it’s harder for a chair to really know how a trustee is doing if that trustee does a lot of work between meetings or works with specific staff members. Perhaps I am just being a wimp.

So to answer my own question: it’s undoubtedly a good thing that trustees are becoming professionals who just happen to be unpaid. But for me, that doesn’t make it easy to put that professionalization into practice. And I’d love it if anybody had any ideas or experience on good ways to evaluate individual trustee performance. Failing that just call me a wimp.


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