The following blog is the longer and complementary version of “Rethinking Trusteeship” originally post on NCVO which can be found here


It’s fair to say, charity trustee boards have a profile. Research shows that boards are on around 92% white with an average age of 60 and shows little sign of changing. Will this stand the sector in good stead for the future? With so much evidence around to suggest otherwise,  The Social Change Agency’s ‘Young Trustee Movement’ has been challenging these assumptions and working to bring new and younger voices to the boardroom.

It only takes a cursory glance at the current landscape of trustees to see that there is a diversity problem. This is not just a perception; ‘Taken on Trust’ research published by the Charity Commission (2017) highlighted that 92% of trustees are white, with this figure rising to 99% in the Trust and Foundation world. A variety of different ages are also woefully underrepresented as outlined in research done by the Charities Aid Foundation (2015) ‘Young Trustees Guide” and many reports with recommendations of what to do including the “Guided by Young Voices” report by the Roundhouse (2017).  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the average age of trustees in the UK is over 60.

So the status quo is clear, but nothing is shifting.

What does the word “trustee” bring into mind? For most people, the perception of a trustee brings to mind a person at the pinnacle of their career – having earned the position on a trustee board through years of experience. This ingrained belief is written clear in recruitment adverts, “ if you have experience at a senior level in business or charitable management, we welcome your application”, calls are put out for individuals with “Senior professional and strategic leadership experience”, or “significant governance experience”. Certainly, the perspectives, skills and networks that are acquired and developed through time and experience are valuable. Moreover, some charities may have specific skills they are recruiting for. However, is experience in a senior role and by extension advanced age the sole, and most desirable, prerequisite of being a trustee? It is essential that we challenge these qualities as the ultimate marker of suitability as a trustee.

So.. what are the responsibilities of trustees? The concept of governance is surely key.  A trustee board must make sure that the charity is operating effectively, achieving its purpose, that it is properly and legally managed.  Trustees bear responsibility. A responsibility to know and understand their role as a trustee and as a collective board, and the responsibility to make reasonable decisions about the charity’s activities and finances. Ultimately, trustees are responsible for the activities of their charity. There is a legal minimum age, at least 16 to be a trustee and at least 18 for unincorporated associations. While this is not an exhaustive description of a trustee’s duties, nowhere in these top line tasks and responsibilities is age explicitly outlined as a necessity when it comes to governance. Why then, has senior experience and by extension an ‘older’ age become a defining characteristic of the current landscape of trusteeship? More importantly, what is to stop young people aged 16 – 25 with perhaps less experience to be effective trustees?

Let’s step back for a moment and imagine a trustee board with different people, of different ages, levels of experience, and backgrounds. Surely, a varied and diverse board brings a wider perspective on the charity’s wider work as well as bring healthy debate to board decisions. While age is one dimension of diversity, having younger people more involved as trustees is critical to the future of the charity world. Engaging with them now will make sure they are equipped with the skills and experience necessary to lead charities in the future as well as help succession planning for trustee boards. Whilst in the here and now,  young people bring new energy, commitment, and fresh perspective to direct a charity to make it stronger and more resilient for the future. The Government’s most recent Civil Society Strategy (2018), echos this belief,  arguing that the contributions of young people are vital to a thriving society are vital and have a critical role in helping the country tackle challenges and deliver a better future for all.

What is The Social Change Agency doing about it?  We strongly believe more action is needed and we are creating a ‘Young Trustees Movement’ to catalyse change and to start breaking down the barriers faced by younger people who want to be trustees.  Funded by the Blagrave Trust, this movement takes a systemic approach working with young people driving change to grow the numbers of young trustees in England and Wales.

We are bringing together all of the key organisations, individuals, and initiatives that have a stake in the pathway to trustee recruitment and appointment. This collaborative approach is essential to a systems  wide intervention that challenges the current landscape of underrepresentation of young people on charity boards. This is why we are thrilled that the Charity Commission and other critical stakeholders such as the NCVO and the Roundhouse are putting their support behind this initiative.

The movement is just getting going, beyond our initial research phase, we are holding events in London, Cardiff and Leeds to bring this co-creation to life.

What have we learnt so far?

1. Good governance is exciting and dynamic for any person, regardless of age

During our initial research we often asked CEO’s or sitting board members whether they had thought of recruiting more young people to their board.  We were regularly met with positive responses such as “that’s a great idea!”, or “why not?”. Some were more skeptical, “we wouldn’t want young people to sit through long and boring board meetings” or  ‘young people aren’t interested in trusteeship”.  This is a critical point, the mindset and framing of trusteeship as boring or dull is owned by the trustee board themselves and it is within their power to change or reframe this to be exciting, challenging and engaging.  Some people love governance and age is no exception. Young people who we’ve engaged with tell us they are excited to be applying for trustee positions because they see it as an opportunity to give back to the causes that they truly care about or may be directly affected by as well as to learn more about governance.

2. Charities need to reflect on their intentions around particular board profiles

Some responses we heard expressed worries around younger trustee recruits being ‘tokenistic appointments’ However current boards should reflect and ask themselves questions such as “where does the power lie” or “where are real decisions made?”.  With anyone that comes from a diverse background including younger people, appointments from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds should be seen as individuals that can equally and meaningfully contribute to and make decisions at the board level.

There are many arguments for having more diverse boards such as the ones mentioned already. But most important is the fact that representation matters. Many young people we spoke to who would be interested in a trustee role had not even considered that such a position might be open to them after looking at the profiles of existing trustee boards and seeing none of their peers.

3. Co-creation is key

Finally, there are many key actors in the landscape that affect the pathway of youth leadership on boards. This includes young people who want to be trustees, current trustees, CEOS, trustee recruiters and various other organisations and initiatives. The Oxford Hub for example are working on amazing initiatives such as the Young Trustee programme that connects young people with charities that are open to welcoming  young trustees on their board. Some charities already involve young people at the heart of their decision-making such as the Roundhouse, student unions, and interestingly farmers clubs.

Our work to bring together the organisations and individuals  that are already working in this space in a way that they feel they can share and own actions as well as build networks and to  increase the number of stakeholders along the way. This is one way to ensure that momentum is maintained. The name of the game is increased participation and diversification, so the final lesson is that everyone has a role to play in building this movement.

We invite you to challenge your perception of what it means to be a trustee as well as to challenge ours.

Young people have so much to give and contribute – they want to be included in decision-making especially when it comes to our collective future.

Join the young trustees movement, unleash the power of the younger generation and I promise we won’t disappoint.

If you want to join the young trustees movement then get in touch with karen@thesocialchangeagency. Sign up here to receive the latest news on upcoming events, updates and more on how you get can involved.