Joining a charity board: what’s in it for the employer?

June 13, 2017

Charities are struggling to fill the sizable vacancies on their boards, but what has this got to do with employers, and how can they benefit from this opportunity? Penny Wilson from Getting on Board explains.

When I joined Getting on Board as Operations Director, I was stunned to learn about the scale of the trustee recruitment crisis. Yet, as a trustee of two charities myself, the problem of finding excellent, diverse trustees with relevant professional skills was a familiar one.

It is estimated that about half of the 180,000 charities in England and Wales have an active board vacancy and our recent research found that 74% of charities are struggling to recruit new trustees. Given how critical having an effective board of trustees is, it is hardly surprising that only 14% of the charities we surveyed believed that their charity was very well equipped to meet its strategic needs in the coming three years.

Interestingly, we found that only 15% of charities advertise their trustee vacancies in the media and over half the charities surveyed said that 50% of their board were people already connected to or known to their chair. Charities often say that they need more professional skills on their boards, but don’t know how to go about attracting new trustees. Getting on Board and other organisations are working to professionalise trustee recruitment practices and to link charities with pools of potential trustees.

The public profile of trusteeship is low but when people learn about trusteeship, the level of interest is extremely high. The problem is not one of nobody wanting to be a trustee.

The time commitment of trusteeship is relatively low (an estimated 30 hours a year). It fits well around work and other commitments since meetings are often in the evenings and weekends. The role of a trustee is to be a critical friend: to ask the awkward questions, to find solutions to difficult problems, to operate the charity within the bounds of the law and its charitable objects[1], and to support the charity’s staff and volunteers to run high-quality services which will impact positively on the lives of its beneficiaries and/or the environment. Volunteering doesn’t get much more impactful than that.

So, what has this got to do with employers? Getting on Board works with a range of organisations who can see that trusteeship is a win-win for them, for their staff, for the charity and ultimately for the charity’s beneficiaries.

Matt Sparkes, Head of Corporate Responsibility for Linklaters, notes: “As an almost unique way to gain early, diverse and often challenging experience around a board room table, we encourage our people to become trustees, knowing the difference it will make to them, to us and to the communities we serve.”

Mandip Englund, Legal Counsel at Linklaters describes the benefits of her trusteeship: “I am a trustee at the Lightyear Foundation, a growing charity which seeks to improve education for children of all backgrounds and abilities. I originally decided to become a trustee to make a wider contribution to the community and gain further leadership experience from a board role. I bring my legal skills to the charity, but have also had the opportunity to apply and develop a number of other skills including commercial awareness, business strategy and building consensus amongst people with a broad range of views and backgrounds.”

Whilst using their existing skills for the benefit of a charity, individual trustees stand to gain a wealth of skills and experience, such as communications, budgeting and HR skills. This is also a prime way for individuals to gain live board experience; an excellent stepping stone for future board positions. Sarah Morgan from The Cabinet Office explains: “Volunteering as a trustee is an opportunity to get different experiences of and insights to leadership and management skills and problems.”

Trusteeship assists individuals to realise real social change through board-level volunteering whilst reaping personal and professional benefits through unique, broad, experiential skills development.

As well as a lack of professional skills, charity boards struggle with diversity. The average trustee is white, male and 57. But contrary to popular belief, trusteeship is not just for older people with decades of experience under their belts.  Under-35s, women and other minorities are under-represented, as are those with direct experience of the problem the charity is seeking to address (such as mental health issues, caring responsibilities or homelessness). For many of Getting on Board’s clients, this lack of diversity on charity boards, mirrors their own diversity and inclusion programmes and there are neat ways of marrying the two.

For employers, trusteeship can be a low-cost, high-impact way of contributing to both CR and HR objectives. Companies can play a central role in tackling the huge shortage of trustees. You have skilled employees who would make excellent trustees and can make an important contribution to achieving greater diversity on charity boards. Excitingly, this is a real opportunity to get more people into trusteeship, thereby engineering powerful social change whilst delivering real benefit to core business.

[1] ‘Objects’ describe and identify the purpose for which a charity has been set up.


Penny Wilson is Operations Director at Getting on Board, a charity which helps individuals, employers and members of professional networks become new leaders in communities through board-level volunteering.  We run in-house training for potential trustees, as well as a signposting service to help individuals find charity board positions.