This month Andrew Lindsay, Policy and Public Affairs Adviser at Big Lottery Fund Scotland discusses his challenging experience of trying to become a trustee as a younger person and why diversity is so important to all boards.
It happened on one of those beautiful late spring evenings in 2014. I was outside in the garden letting the rare presence of a Scottish sun warm my skin, listening to the bustling world of nature with a crescendo of buzzing from a mix of insects to bird calls with tweets, chirps, squawks and the occasional quack coming from the direction of a neighbour’s pond. My phone buzzed and I picked it up, unknown number. I let it ring out. I then noticed a message alert. I dialled the correct number and listened to the message. A kind voice sounded out of the ear piece and noted that she was from a charity named Town Break Stirling and that they were interested in my application to become a Trustee, please phone back. I was stunned.
You see I was 31 years old at the time and for over 5 years I had offered my skills and experiences to a number of charities in the hope that one would take a punt on a younger person, and ask me to join their team. But I had come across the same wall that many younger trustees come across when they are looking to give their time and efforts… Lack of experience. Most charities never got back to me. The few that did said that I did not have the required experience… most were looking for “retired ex executive” types. I was confused and angered in equal measure by these responses. Surely a younger person had skills and experiences that charities could find really benefit from?
The pinnacle of this frustration was when I attended an ACOSVO organised Trustee Week Conference. Here I had a conversation with a Chair of a charity who told me that his board would not consider an application from a younger person because “what could a younger person possibly have in common with a bunch of older people? They would not fit in.” Although I wanted to shout at the man, I calmly pointed out that I am a younger person and I bet with him that I would have at least three areas of interest that we had in common. As it turned out it was more than three. The positive outcome is that I may have changed his view… but probably not enough for them to change their recruitment policy.
In any case, after meeting with the Chair and Vice Chair of Town Break Stirling I accepted to attend a couple board meetings. In June 2014 I was officially made a Trustee of the organisation. For 2 years along with the normal duties required of a trustee I provided guidance for the charity’s manager and staff in relation to external engagement, marketing, and social media. I pushed for the creation of a new website, normalised the use of social media and got the idea of a long term planner instigated to allow the staff to prepare for events ahead of time. I made sure that the charity was active with local press and elected members giving it free exposure to publicity. All these skills and experiences I manged to share I gained through my employment and other voluntary work. I don’t need to be an executive to know how things should be organised and how they have to keep within budget! Being a younger person also means that I have an appreciation and knowledge of the importance of using different types of technology to communicate, which in today’s world is vital.
But do not take my word for it. Alison Clyde, Chair of Town Break Stirling points out her views on having had a younger member on the board;
“Recruiting a younger person brought a new dimension to the Town Break board and to be honest Andrew had so much knowledge and experience to share that his age was not even considered as an issue. In this day and age charities need to be forward thinking, exploring and investigating new ways of working which can improve and benefit the charity, staff, volunteers and clients. At present trustees in the UK are not representative of the population, with both women and BME communities dramatically under represented. Another area is in the category of age. Most boards across the UK are dominated by older people. The benefits of younger and older people working together are well documented and can be found easily by searching the web. In our case we were able to increase public awareness of our work, our staff and volunteers became more social media savvy, we built on the range of skills our trustees offered sharing and exploring new ideas together. We are very proud to be a charity who has helped a younger person build skills and knowledge which can be carried forward throughout their career. Although Andrew was hard to replace we are delighted to announce that we recruited another young person who has joined our board who once again has a wide range of skills and ideas that are creating energy and excitement within the staff team and board.”
Admittedly it is important to say that having younger people on the board does require some flexibility on the part of the charity. Younger trustees will tend to be in full time employment and tend not to have positions within their organisations that allow them the flexibility to leave early or take the day off. However, more and more employers are seeing the benefit of having their staff be active in civic society and larger employers now offer volunteer days to allow staff the time off. I know without the support of my employer, and in particular my direct line manager, I would not have been able to offer Town Break my time in the same way I did. An agreement on minimum expectations of attendance is important to negotiate when dealing with younger trustees.
Carolyn Sawers, Head of Policy and Learning at Big Lottery Fund Scotland, (and my line manager) points out the advantages of an employer encouraging their staff to volunteer as trustees…
“We are happy to support our colleagues to volunteer, through dedicated volunteer days each year and with flexibility when they need it. Volunteering as a trustee is something I’ve been particularly keen to encourage in my team. It’s a great way to share skills – as Andrew has done around social media and other communications tools. But it also helps my team build their skills. For younger employees it’s a good way to get practical experience, to test out emerging people and financial management skills. And of course, to develop a great understanding of the difference that people make in their communities.”
After two years I unfortunately made the decision to leave Town Break as the organisation is based in Stirling but I am based in Glasgow. Although I was able to make most board meetings, AGM and development days. I could not offer as much time as I wished I could for the “extracurricular activities” (such as extra charity days or fund raising events) due to the distance.
I therefore find myself in the same boat as I was on that beautiful spring evening two years ago… waiting on a charity’s board to be brave enough to forget about stereotypes and instead happily pursue a younger person to join their board... I hope it happens quicker than last time!!