Charity trusteeships: Ready to get on board?

It is estimated that half of all registered charities in the UK have a trustee vacancy. Why do so many people overlook taking part? With Trustees Week around the corner, Katherine Sparkes explains how trusteeships can massively enhance your professional development and personal wellbeing.

For legal professionals looking to give something back, setting up a generous direct debit to a charity of their choice may seem like the most effective option. However, there’s something far more valuable they can do: give their time by becoming a trustee on a charity board.

What’s more – to address what will no doubt be a primary concern for lawyers – it needn’t require huge amounts of your time. If fact, even just a few afternoons or evenings a year can make a big difference to both the charity and your career.

The picture today

Trustees Week (13-17 November) is aimed at raising awareness of how individuals and charities can benefit from trusteeship. Without a doubt, more awareness of this issue is needed.

At present, the UK has a big charity trustee problem. Namely, there aren’t enough of them and the ones the sector does have are often not representative of the community at large.

This is no small issue. At present, of the 180,000 registered charities across England and Wales, half have a vacant slot for a new trustee. This doesn’t just endanger the workings of individual charities, it has a detrimental impact on the third sector as a whole.

But it’s not just the charities which are missing out because of these vacancies. ‘Would-be, could-be’ trustees are too. Volunteering on a charity board doesn’t just help you do good for your community, or for a particular cause close to your heart – it can also help boost your career and even improve your sense of personal wellbeing.

The benefits of trusteeship

Trusteeship offers huge benefits to the individual. It gives the trustee a chance to learn new skills, make new connections, explore new opportunities and rise to new challenges.

At Getting On Board, we surveyed 200 charity trustees and found that their experiences had been overwhelmingly positive. This was largely because they hadn’t just gained that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from helping others, but because their trusteeships had translated into real, professional gains.

For example, almost all of the trustees we interviewed (96 per cent) said that they have gained new skills as a result of their trusteeship. A further quarter (22 per cent) told us that they gained a promotion as a result of board-level volunteering.

Whatever stage of your career, the benefits are there. For those new to the legal profession, for example, a board trusteeship can be a great way to gain exposure to board-level conversations and people. It can build confidence in challenging others, ‘speaking truth to power’ and presenting (and defending) complex arguments and difficult propositions. In a highly competitive industry, it can also be a useful differentiator between you and others vying for that next step on the career ladder.

Another benefit is the way that it can help shape your career, and your sense of perspective. It’s a useful way of gaining a sense of what very senior decision-making is like for organisations – something that can stand you in good stead as more senior positions arise in your company or other firms. The tasks trustees take on and the way they work with other board members and charity staff are excellent ways to undertake extra training and development outside of the workplace.

The benefits of trusteeship aren’t just limited to those early on in their careers. For more senior legal professionals, it can be a great way to build your personal profile and networks. It can also act as a very useful springboard for a non-executive director role, particularly if you have no previous board experience and need to stand out among the competition by demonstrating that you have the required attributes and knowledge gained from hands-on work.

A charity trusteeship can also be very useful for personal PR and showcasing how you as an individual, and your firm more generally, is ‘giving something back’. It can ensure your portfolio stays broad, even if your actual day-to-day role has become relatively specialised.

For people working at all levels, trusteeship can help provide opportunities to develop an understanding of how other people live and the challenges they face. This could be of particular interest, for example, for criminal lawyers working with a particular client group. And for lawyers who rarely work outside the City, for example, or who – having gone from school, to university, to magic circle law firm – it can be a useful way of gaining exposure to different sectors, issues and experiences.

With such varied benefits to the individual employee, it is no wonder that so many employers look very favourably on trusteeships; many employers have noted how trusteeships have helped boost expertise and skills among their workforce. Of the bosses we spoke to as part of our study, 85 per cent said that they see trusteeships as an effective and low-cost way to enable staff to develop skills. Nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) said encouraging board-level volunteering raises their corporate responsibility profile and three-quarters (75 per cent) said that it helped give their employees experience in different areas of business.

Encouraging trusteeships can also be very effective in honing and focusing people’s ambitions, which can be particularly useful in supporting under-represented groups in their path to the corporate boardroom. For example, of the female trustees we interviewed, 38 per cent said that they had new leadership aspirations as a result of becoming a trustee.

Personal rewards

Volunteering as a charity trustee can also have a real impact on your sense of wellbeing.

Law is, undoubtedly, one of the toughest careers around. Is it any wonder then that a 2012 survey of legal professions revealed that more than half felt stressed, and another 19 per cent were suffering from clinical depression? While trusteeship is obviously not a sticking plaster for these very serious issues, volunteering can help – quite simply – to make you a bit happier and add a little balance to your life. The ‘volunteers’ high’ is a well-documented phenomenon and those who volunteer on boards certainly enjoy it too. 82 per cent of trustees said their role makes them happy, and 73 per cent have gained a confidence boost.

The proof is in the pudding. Although most charities will set out a minimum term that trustees must stay with a charity for, many will stay long beyond this period.

Busting the time commitment myth

For legal professionals, time is very much money. So the good news is that becoming a charity board member should not require you to spend huge amounts of it. In fact, the average trusteeship time commitment is just 30 hours a year. This is less than a working week (certainly for those working in this profession!).

How this time will be spent will usually vary depending on what charity you are working with, and the scope of your role. Typically, charities will require their trustees for a couple of hours each month. This will generally involve a meeting, but could also be spent reading reports or attending events on behalf of the charity. In our survey, the vast majority (84 per cent) of trustees said their volunteering role fits in with their personal and professional life and that they found the time commitment was reasonable and brought all sorts of benefits.

Board level trusteeships, then, benefit everyone they touch. But despite this, just not enough people are availing themselves of the amazing opportunities volunteering in this way presents.

Although they are currently lacking board-level experience in many different areas, charities could particularly benefit from the expertise of those working in law. Larger charities, for example, may have dedicated legal, governance or audit committees. All charities need skills like attention to detail, intellectual capability and being able to assimilate complex data and information rapidly – things that those working in the legal sector have in abundance.

Charities need legal professionals, and legal professionals could certainly stand to benefit from some of the skills and experience they can gain through working with a charity in this way. Nearly all (98 per cent) trustees said they would recommend board-level volunteering. Could you help change the lives of others, and maybe even your life, by getting involved?

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