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  • Writer's pictureMatt Lister

Why I became a Trustee, and why you should too

I am both pleased and excited to have recently been appointed as the new Chairperson of Jacari’s board of trustees. I am immensely proud of the work that Jacari does and have thoroughly enjoyed my previous three years on Jacari’s board.

What is perhaps most interesting to me personally as I take on the role, is the question of how I got here, given that I never set out to be on a board, yet alone to become a Chairperson. But rather than indulging entirely in my own story I thought I might use it to springboard onto a cause that has grown increasingly important to me. Demystifying the roles of trustees, encouraging everyone to consider joining a board, and improving the diversity and representation of charitable boards, also known as a board of trustees.

Perceptions of trustees

Perhaps like most people, before becoming a trustee, I had a particular image of what a board of trustees would look like. Senior professionals, lawyers and accountants, high earners, often retired, often men, often white, engaging in philanthropy that required their skills, education and connections.

My imagination was not entirely incorrect. In 2020, the Small Charities Coalition shared some headlines from a report from Getting on Board that corroborated my intuition.

  • The average age of a trustee is 60-62 and only 0.5% of trustees are 18-24, despite making up 12% of the population. Two thirds of charity trustees are over 50 and 51% of trustees are retired.

  • Women make up 36% of trustees.

  • People of colour represent 8% of trustees (versus 14% of the wider population). Disabled people and other minorities are likely to be under-represented (but no statistics are available).

  • 30% of trustees have a postgraduate education, 60% of trustees have a professional qualification and 75% of trustees are from households above the national median for household income.

Trusteeship it seemed was plagued by many of the same hurdles as much of our economic system, in an even more exaggerated fashion. I was surprised then, when on joining Jacari’s board I found that almost everyone was under 40, not everyone was white, we only had one lawyer and I was now one of only two men on the board of nine. Additionally everyone appeared to have different working backgrounds, teachers, charity workers, university administrators, and myself as a theatre administrator.

It was progress of a kind, but it was still clearly not enough. By and large we were all university educated, and while few of us were professionals, we all had the sort of jobs that would allow us the time to volunteer. When I joined Jacari’s board in 2019, I was 27 (beating the average by over 30 years), but I was still a white man from a privileged background.

There are many better-informed opinions as to why this is still the case but my suspicion as to why is three-fold. Firstly, it is economic: not everyone is able to take on the unpaid work of being a trustee, particularly carers, parents or anyone with complex demands on their time and money. Part of a board’s unequal representation then is a mirror of inequalities within our economic system. Secondly, the very stereotypes I have previously described make many people feel like being a trustee is “not for them”, or that they do not have the skills or education required. And finally, we as charities need to do more to explain what the day-to-day reality of being a trustee is like and make clear that anyone can be a trustee.

Demystifying trusteeship

So to demystify trusteeship let me say that very rarely does it require any specialist knowledge, and when it does the board can always get help from a specialist. A good board will help you to improve any skills that would make you a better Trustee, not to mention the many workshops and training sessions provided by charities like NCVO.

A lot of trusteeship is simple general administration, that requires few technical skills beyond phone calls and being able to send an email. To me, the key requirement of a trustee is enthusiasm and diligence. If you are willing to volunteer to do a sometimes-boring task and do it in a timely manner you can be helpful! If you can listen to others and help a group come to a decision, sometimes at the expense of your own ideas, you can be helpful.

Not only this, but many trustees have different levels of engagement. As long as you are honest with the charity and your fellow board members, you may find that you can have relatively limited involvement compared to others. Good boards, like good employers, should be flexible in order to encourage trustees who have complicated schedules.

There are a large variety of ways that boards of trustees function, largely depending on the size of the charity they work for. In small charities, trustees may be involved in a very hands-on way, directly providing the services of the charity. In larger charities, boards may meet more regularly but only focus on higher level decisions about strategy and budget. This is particularly true if the charity has a large staff. Here at Jacari, our board will meet at least four times a year, with additional meetings as required. Not all trustees attend all meetings, and we may delegate certain trustees to meet more regularly to focus on a specific task or project.

The benefits of being a trustee

So what will you get for all this extra administration and responsibility in your life? The short answer is nothing. That is to say nothing except the warm, fuzzy feeling that you have helped make the world a bit better. Last year Jacari helped 159 children improve their confidence and English language skills and reduce their risk of social isolation and falling behind in school. Our staff facilitated 2000 lessons across 16 schools, during a global pandemic, that has disproportionately affected our pupils. The full success of Jacari’s work can be read about in our impact report.

Quite simply the work of our staff is impactful, necessary and very moving. It is a great privilege to help them, and one of the most fulfilling parts of my life. Aside from how I feel about it, it might also be incumbent on me to help address educational injustices that I myself did not face.

This may or may not also be true for you, but there are many ways you can help a charity. You can give money, you can volunteer, or you can become a trustee. This Trustees’ Week, I encourage you to consider them all, but particularly think about becoming a trustee. Many boards will welcome you as a guest to help you learn more and they should all share their learning and skills with you.

I am very thankful to Imran Mirza for his many years of service as Chairperson, and also for agreeing to remain on the Board to pass his skills to me. Indeed, I am thankful to the entire board of trustees, who volunteer much of their time to ensure Jacari can continually provide for children who are much in need of our support.

Matt Lister, Chairperson

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