What’s it like to be a trustee?

Heart of the City | 6 November 2022 | News
What’s it like to be a trustee?

Olivia Beecham recently joined the Heart of the City team as the Foundations for Responsible Business Programme Manager. Here she discusses her experience of being a trustee of international development charity, Plan International UK, and why you may want to consider becoming a trustee yourself. She’s pictured above at the Houses of Parliament for Plan UK’s launch of its report on street harassment. 

“For nearly seven years I’ve been lucky enough to sit on the trustee board of the global children’s charity Plan International UK. I joined as their ‘young’ trustee, and the world of governance was completely new to me. Before seeing that trustee advert, I’d never considered becoming a trustee before… it may be something you’ve never considered either, but hopefully after reading this it will be firmly on your radar — and I would fully encourage anyone over the age of 18 to sit on a trustee/governing board.

Who are trustees and what do they do?

In England and Wales there are roughly 169,000 registered charities, and the average age of a trustee is 57. Disappointingly only 3% of trustees are under the age of 30.

As volunteers, trustees are legally responsible for the charity and ensuring the charity is doing what it was set up to do, in line with its charitable purposes.

They must:

  • Always act in the charity’s best interests
  • Manage the charity’s resources (money/property/staff) responsibly
  • Make sure the charity is acting within the law
  • Ensure the charity is carrying out its purpose

Why be a trustee?

It’s a big commitment (when I finish I will have volunteered with Plan UK for eight years), and not something to take likely, so why do it?

1) You get to support a cause you care about

Probably the most obvious one, but by being a trustee you get to work in an area you’re passionate about. My day job was working in international development so I found it absolutely fascinating to go into more depth on different areas of Plan UK’s work. I’m am so proud of their work in areas such as girls’ education, humanitarian responses and their campaigning work to improve girls’ rights, including here in the UK.

For some trustees the charity’s work doesn’t directly align with their career, so it’s an opportunity to support a cause without moving into the sector. On our board we have trustees from a range of career backgrounds and experiences, and it’s important to have that diversity so that you don’t get ‘group-think’!

Diversity comes in all shapes and sizes — the board’s function is to support, as well as challenge the executive and other trustees. When you have people working together who have different ages, lived experience, careers and socio-economic background (to name but a few), the trustee board benefits from having a more creative and in-depth discussion. Representation of the programme participants on boards is also crucial. At Plan UK we have two Youth Advisory Panel members and have sought international development expertise and lived experience on our trustee board.

2) It’s an opportunity for you to grow

Being on a trustee board means you have a bird’s eye view of the strategic direction of the organisation. With that comes a lot of information about strategy, governance, staff, finances, risk etc. – many areas that were new to me before starting.

I was absolutely terrified before my first board meeting but with support from conversations with staff and trustees, a comprehensive induction (crucial!) and attending trustee training sessions, I managed to feel more confident in what I was reading and asking about. Imposter syndrome still rears its head (doesn’t it for everyone?) but I try my best to ignore those nagging thoughts. I now sit on the nominations and good governance committee and have been involved in recruiting other trustees, helping diversify our board by expanding recruitment globally and crucially helped recruit the CEO.

I’ve learnt so much from being a trustee, many things that I would never have had the opportunity to be exposed to for a while.

3) It’s a commitment that keeps on giving

The trustee role is hard work, and this should not be underestimated. However, given you know in advance when board meetings are and can anticipate when your workload will increase, you can plan accordingly (but of course things always pop-up needing trustee attention throughout the year).

Sometimes the juggling can be overwhelming but for some, being a trustee can be more rewarding than your day job. It’s a time when you get to step back from your day-to-day and dive headfirst into the running of another organisation. The longer you stay as a trustee, the more that steep learning curve at the beginning begins to plateau and you can go more in-depth into certain areas. The more you give, the more you get back.

Although it is a big commitment, it’s also a lot of fun. Each trustee will have their own definition of what they enjoy the most but for me as an extravert I really love spending time with the other trustees (who are brilliant) and meeting the people who support Plan UK’s journey as staff and donors.

How to do juggle day job and trustee work

If your organisation has volunteering days, it’s relatively easy to split those days into chunks of time. My board meetings began at 4pm and I also have occasional meetings during the working day. I use my volunteer hours towards my trustee work and as a result, it doesn’t impact my day job.

If your organisation doesn’t have volunteering days, perhaps this is an opportunity to suggest it? Yes, you can join in with your company wide initiatives, but those volunteering days/ hours could also be put towards a longer term commitment such as being a trustee, or a school governor.

Want to do more?

At Heart of the City we have a short guide on how to become a trustee and Getting on Board’s guide is a really comprehensive resource. Equally, if you want to chat about trustee life, I’m always available!”

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