Have you ever thought of becoming a trustee?
Many organisations, including SOAS, have Trustee Boards who are responsible for the legal direction of the institution, help shape strategy, and monitor institutional finances, actions and futures; ultimately, trustees have the final say on what happens. It’s paramount for organisation success that trustee boards are diverse, active, and well-equipped to deal with a huge variety of challenges.
We spoke with Professor Adam Habib, Director of SOAS, about the nature of trustee boards, and said of the SOAS trustee board that “diversity is absolutely necessary and fundamental for excellent decision-making.”
Unfortunately, in the UK, most trustee boards are not diverse and are missing vital opportunities for high-level performance and representation. Of the 700,000 trustees in the UK:
- 92% are white, older and have both above average income and education
- 8% are from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds
- 7% are Black
It’s also reported that there are over 100,000 trustee vacancies each year in the UK; however, it’s known that over 70% of charities alone recruit trustees informally through existing networks. This makes it more likely that recruitment will find people like those already in place, remaining made up mostly of the 92% who are white, older, with above average income and education. Professor Habib noted that often, the trustee board is not the only area lacking diversity, “which is needed at other levels too, for example, within executive boards and senior leadership.”
Diversifying the makeup of trustee boards, as well as of senior leadership, benefits both areas of work; the more diverse the makeup of trustee boards, the more experience individuals have to secure senior leadership roles, and vice versa.
The SOAS landscape
The diversity of the UK trustee landscape is one such area where members of the SOAS community could have incredible impact. Law alumnus, and current SOAS Lay Trustee, Yaa Ofori-Ansah is an example of this.
During her studies, Yaa felt that she wanted to be more involved in SOAS, and give back to the student community.
“I kept in touch with SOAS after graduating and attended events, and when I saw trustee positions being advertised, I went for it.” Yaa wasn’t successful first time around, however, was appointed as an ‘apprentice trustee’: “I was basically given the chance to shadow and observe current trustees to help gain some of that board-level experience,” she told us. The apprentice trustee initiative was developed by SOAS to ensure younger members were able to join the board. “They recognised I had skills to bring to the table, so wanted to help me gain the board experience necessary.”
Yaa is now a full Lay Trustee of the SOAS board of trustees, and is enjoying the role she has in SOAS’ governance. “I’m able to give back to SOAS, and help improve things that I noticed from my student experience. I’m able to benefit current and future students, as well as gaining a lot of experience of how complex organisations work.”
Alongside Yaa’s role, SOAS acknowledges that its own trustee board, while more representative than others in the sector, “isn’t there yet on diverse representation,” according to Professor Habib. Working to improve both trustee board and institutional representation is a priority for SOAS, with upcoming recruitment for lay trustees having inclusive practice at its core.
The national picture
Outside of SOAS, there are organisations working to improve this picture nationally. As well as the notable lack of diversity in the trustee landscape, Young Trustees Movement wrote that often, factors like timing of meetings, the reality of the commitment, and being the ‘odd one out’ can all contribute to the reason younger and minoritised groups have trouble becoming a trustee.
To combat this, the Young Trustee Movement is working collectively with Action for Trustee Racial Diversity (ATRD), supported by the Co-op Foundation, to double the number of trustees under 30 and appoint 10,000 more Black and Asian trustees in the next few years. ATRD’s research has found that there is a strong desire for charities to become more representative, and work is being done to support charities in reaching wider with their recruitment, training current trustees and providing opportunities to work together. Additionally, ATRD recognise the value of members of universities in become trustees, stating that “universities across the UK are a significant and, as yet, largely untapped source of younger potential trustees with professional skills and lived experiences”.
Speaking of her experience as a Lay Trustee at SOAS, Yaa said “It’s not always easy, but I’d recommend to just go for it.”
“Find opportunities you’re interested in and apply for them; if you don’t get offered roles initially it can be frustrating, so make sure to take a break and reflect on your experiences. Anything that could be picked up on as a weakness, you can always reframe as a benefit or development opportunity, and after the last few years, boards should be opening up to diversity.”
If you’re interested in becoming a trustee, Getting on Board have a free guide on becoming a charity trustee, Young Trustees Movement holds events, training and resources for young people interested in becoming a trustee, and Action for Trustee Racial Diversity has a network for potential and current Black and Asian trustees. Trustees Unlimited have also published The Inspire List, a collection of profiles of Black and minority ethnic trustees with contact information for you to find out more about them.