November 14, 2014 : Ilse Mackinnon

10 top tips for enticing new trustees

Ten tips on encouraging people to join your board.

Happy trustees’ week! Last Saturday I joined 90 other trustees at the first SCVO trustees’ network conference. There was a brilliant buzz, and it was the kick up the backside I needed to blow the cobwebs off a dissertation I wrote last year and share some of the findings with folk.

Over 250 trustees shared their experiences of being trustees with me, explaining how they got involved with boards, what they love and hate about it, and what they thought might put others off joining a board.

Every board has slightly different needs – some struggle to get anyone to join, some struggle to find young people, some find it tricky getting the mix of skills right – but everyone is keen to:

  • reach more people
  • encourage diversity and
  • stop people dropping out at the first hurdle.

So what did I learn from existing trustees about encouraging new people to join up?

Raise awareness of your board. The vast majority of ‘normal’ people don’t actually know that charities are run by voluntary boards, or that boards are always on the lookout for enthusiastic folk to join them – research shows less than 5% of people are aware of trusteeship as a way to support a charity.
Take a long term view. Over 80% of trustees joined their boards because of an existing relationship with the organisation, so it’s important to get people involved at all levels – joining the board often follows on from that. Two years ago one of my colleagues offered to help redesign his residents’ association newsletter. He’s now the Chair.
Ask people! Word of mouth is often regarded as a last resort and poor cousin to advertising but many trustees I spoke to said that they would never have considered joining a board if they hadn’t been asked. Far from just recruiting more of the same, people said they’d been deliberately asked because the offered something new – one trustee explained “the board was all male and they had been looking for female to join to give different point of view”
Reassure potential trustees. Concerns about personal liability, financial risks, and time commitment are big turn-offs. Make sure your legal structure protects board members, be clear about what you expect from them, and let them know support is there. And give them a PROPER induction. Lots of people I spoke to complained that their induction was either non-existent or didn’t give them the information they needed as newbies – only stubbornness stopped them running for the exit.
Don’t focus on a narrow set of formal ‘skills’. It’s great having a board with a range of skills, but you don’t need degrees, lawyers or accountants for the board to run smoothly. When my dad set up a charity with his fellow canal enthusiasts (a mechanic, a typist and a fireman) it was a steep learning curve but they got the hang of it – and so should anyone with common sense, enthusiasm and a bit of training. The fact that 76% of the trustees taking part in my research had degrees compared with only 26% of the wider population does suggest the sector is not engaging and encouraging everyone equally.
Advertise in new places Advertising on and in the local press works well, but a well-placed ad or story could reach a whole new audience. Try community centres, pubs, events listing papers such as the List or Skinny, social media…. and use inclusive, fun, welcoming language.
Build a relationship with your local college. There’s nothing wrong with boards being made up of older people (pensioners do tend to have the time as well as the life experience) but if you are hungry for fresh meat there’s groups like the Young Trustees Network Scotland and young people and students can get involved in all sorts of ways, giving guidance on their specialist subjects.
Encourage local people to get involved. Events can be a great way of reaching out to people, encouraging local people to join as members, getting local businesses involved (they’ve usually got the skills a board needs, plus handy contacts!).
Use your local volunteer agency. These can help advertise trustee roles as well as provide training and support.
Make use of all the support available! Use mentoring, co-opt people, provide training. SCVO and many other support bodies provide a free helpline, and can provide training and advice on HR, tax and legal issues, often for free. Check out SCVO’s information service.
I’ve put a shortened version of the my dissertation online with lots of useful info on who joins boards and why; recruitment methods; diversity including gender and age; and the value of different experiences and backgrounds. I’ve edited out the theory so it is an easier read (apologies to any fans on the French sociologist Bourdieu, the sections on radical social capital and the establishment are now gone, but get in touch if you’d like the full tome!)
Important: Opinions expressed by bloggers are their own and don't represent those of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

by Ilse Mackinnon