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'Diversity amongst our trustees will superpower our Boards'


Penny Wilson joined Purposely Podcast to share her story as CEO of Getting On Board, a non-profit focused on supporting people from all sectors of society to become charity board trustees as well as helping charities to recruit and retain a diverse range of trustees.


Tell me about Getting On Board the charity you lead, what does it do?

Getting On Board is a really small charity based in Britain working to increase the accessibility and diversity of trustee non-profit boards… which are currently positively ‘Victorian’ in their composition right across the sector. Two thirds of trustees are male, two thirds are over 50, 92% white and three quarters of trustees are from households above the national median household income. So as a body, our trustees are wealthier, ‘maler’, whiter, older than wider society and then we've got lots of gaps for example… lived experience, so lived experience of the thing that a particular charity is seeking to tackle and Getting On Board works on that… important work that impacts on every single charity. ‘


Trustees perform vital and important roles, right?


‘Charity board members are the most senior leaders in our charities and unfortunately not enough care and attention is given to how we recruit trustees or thought put into who goes onto a board. In fact the most common way of becoming a trustee in the UK is to be asked to be one, however, this does not necessarily ensure the right people are recruited and it does not match how we recruit our employees. In comparison if we need an employee with certain skills we advertise for the person that matches that requirement we don’t just ask friends, family members ex colleagues etc. We need to start doing this when recruiting trustees especially when you consider the level of responsibility they have’


How did the Getting On Board get started?


‘It was started in 2004, by Sarah Hodgkinson who sadly died a couple of years ago. At the time Sarah held a senior role in a big corporate and she recognized that there wasn't an easy path for senior professionals to step onto charity board roles and she wanted to do something about it. I’m the CEO and I've been here for five years. I had met Sarah a few times and heard her talking about trusteeship and I thought that sounded brilliant. I want a piece of that. So that’s how my voluntary trusteeship career took off and it also led me to taking this role with Getting On Board.’


How is the charity set-up?


The first thing to say is that we are microscopically small with an annual income of just over 70,000 pounds but it is fair to say that we really punch above our weight and people are always really shocked when they find out how small we are both in terms of income and the size of the team. We've got three part time core team members. However, we've got like a really wide community of people who just think what we do is important and support us in lots of ways by amplifying our message.’


A core part of what you do is training? What else do you do?


‘We work on both sides of the trustee thing, so we work with people who are potential trustees and then we work with charity leaders who want to know about diversifying their boards and about recruiting trustees professionally, we do this by providing free guidance. That said we primarily focus on training people in what it means to be a trustee, to serve as an effective trustee as well as how to find a role. On the other side of the coin we advise and train charities on how to diversify their boards and how to recruit trustees. It’s fair to say that most charities trustees have to be hands on because there is nobody else to do the work although the medium to larger organisations that have staff again can take more of a governance only approach’


Do you believe the sector uses volunteer trustees effectively?


'No, we're not productive in using board terms and we tend to let people just sit there and sit there. Alternatively I think we would be doing it right if we recruited people because we knew they would be useful to us, for example, if say…. we're undergoing a digital transformation, which most of us are right now, and we recruit somebody to our board with amazing digital skills it's likely that we're going to need them to use their skills. I don't mean we're going to have them sitting there literally writing social media posts but they're probably going to help us write the strategy or connect us with other people who might be able to give staff some training. We're bringing them in for very specific reasons like that and they are going to make an impact.’


Could we completely transform things by paying out our trustees instead of then being voluntary?


‘Wow, that's a big topic, isn't it? On balance I'm against paying trustees, first of all it is worth pointing out that it is an absolute non issue for the majority of charities because they couldn't afford to pay trustees based on their size and lack of financial resources. On the other hand if we let the bigger charities pay trustees we would then end up with a two tier charity sector where we've got the ‘biggies’ paying and the smaller charities not paying. There has been an argument that if we paid people to go on boards we could ensure more diversity… there is some truth in that. However, most charities have never advertised openly for trustee positions before, they have literally not tried anything else other than asking people they know. So to go from asking people in your network, inviting them to join your board… to saying we need to diversify and on top of that we'll pay is a massive leap without ever having tried anything in the middle. I think probably an unnecessary leap at this stage and we need to to try the actual things that we know work in terms of diversifying boards, try those things first.’


Is it vital that trustees have ’lived experience’ of the cause they will be supporting?


‘I don't think there is a certain percentage of board members who have to tick that box. I would argue that it is essential for Boards to have trustees with ‘lived experience’, however, it's harder to identify what that is or means for certain charities. So if you're a countryside charity, for example, what does lived experience mean for you or if you're an Animal charity what does it mean? If you're HIV charity, it's much clearer.


Through the research we have done we were told that 60% of charities didn't have trustees with ‘lived experience’ of what they were seeking to tackle on their boards. So it's a massive area of under representation. It is often the case that if people come in under a ‘’lived experience ticket they're often not valued as highly as people with professional skills and I think that's wrong. A further complicating issue is that we tend to pigeonhole people i.e. you're either lived experience or your professional skills and you couldn't possibly be both, which of course can't be right. There is also thebig issue around disclosure of lived experience and keeping people safe and protected.’


Why don’t we see many young people on Boards?


‘Put simply they just don’t get asked to go on them and the research carried out by the insurers Ecclesiastical backs this up, on top of the fact that they often don’t think they've got something of value to offer or that they will be taken seriously. It of course goes right back to the problems that we have in our system and the fact that only 10% of vacancies (estimated) are ever advertised. You know, working for a cause that you are really passionate while it's not everybody's cup of tea to a lot of people that sounds absolutely brilliant… that sounds great… and tell me more! That’s got nothing to do with age and it's not like older people think that sounds more interesting than younger people.’


You’re a volunteer trustee yourself, you must be a real asset based on your unique insight?


‘I love it and I couldn't do my day job if I wasn't a trustee myself! I've been a trustee for about 11 years. It's something I enjoy and I’ve tried to be as good a trustee as possible with as much self-awareness as possible… which means knowing what I'm not very good at as well. I think we need a bit more of that with our board members, to be less puffed up and more self-aware and understanding that they are also here to learn. I think there is a natural tension between what it's like to actually run a charity, particularly as a small to medium sized charity which is the majority of the sector and what it can be like being a trustee and the tension between if you've got a board packed full of people who work for large organizations with HR departments and data departments and marketing teams, and then they come onto the board of an organization where the CEO is the data department, HR department, the marketing team.’


How has the pandemic effected Trustees, Board and charities?


‘It's been a really interesting and trying period for boards and their relationships with their executives. I think a lot of boards have had their eye on operational matters during the pandemic especially in cases where their CEOs have been furloughed. In some cases where Boards are used to having paid teams have had to step up and do the work themselves. Further to that research published by Ecclesiastical focused on the mental health of charity leaders provided horrendous reading and at the beginning of the pandemic we were told that a lot of trustees were resigning and that was a really worrying trend. It really focuses your mind when there is a huge jolt or shift.

However, more encouragingly and counter to that trend we also saw a lot of people becoming trustees and post pandemic people are returning to their Board positions. There's also been an increase in certain types of volunteering elsewhere… people who hadn’t considered being a trustee previously were re evaluating their lives life, they wanted to build in purpose into their lives and becoming a trustee, you know, is one of the ways you might do that.’


You went to Cambridge University, was it a positive experience and how did it lead to leading a non-profit?


‘I had a really normal upbringing and went to a big state school… so not your typical Cambridge student. I went there because one of my teachers told me I was brainy and that I should apply. It was brilliant… I loved it… saying that I didn't meet anybody else whose mum was a cleaner or many other people from single parent families. It was a great experience and I made some lifelong friends. I then did my I did a Master's and was looking for some part time work. The first job I got was as an assistant manager of a charity shop and I ended up at the Association of Charity Shops, surprisingly so because I couldn't even use a computer.’


What hopes do you have for the sector and for Boards?


‘My hope is that we can continue doing good stuff but we can do it better, we can superpower our boards by throwing open the doors and attracting talent from a much wider base. It just feels like there's this epic potential and if we can get that right there's massive potential to do more in the sector and to have greater impact. We know how to recruit staff it's just when we're not using those core skills when it comes to recruiting trustees.’