How to form the most effective board for your charity

by | Sep 28, 2020 | Emma Willder

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“Charities are the eyes, ears and conscience of society. They mobilise, they provide, they inspire, they advocate and they unite.”[1]

Charities are essential to our everyday lives because they level the playing field. Life doesn’t deliver the ‘ideal’ situation to everyone, but through charitable organisations we all have access to the services and support we need to live our best lives.

But even though charities are crucial to our wellbeing, and the Government even saying that a stronger society is created through building stronger charities[1], the sector is operating at a sever disadvantage.


Because charities lack diversity among their trustees.

The Charity Governance Code[2] lists 7 best-practice principles that charities should follow. One of these is ‘diversity’ because, it says:

“Boards whose trustees have different backgrounds and experience are more likely to encourage debate and to make better decisions.”

But when crunching the numbers, The Charity Commission discovered that[3]:

  • 92% of Board members are white.
  • 71% of charity chairs, 68% of charity treasurers and 64% of trustees are men.
  • The average age of a board member is 61.
  • 75% of trustees have household incomes above the national median.

I can see how it happens though.

Working in the charity sector isn’t the same as being employed – the main reason being that most trustees volunteer their time. This makes it really hard to ‘recruit’ people into the Board. So instead of advertising a new trustee role – which happens in just 5% of cases[4]– the current trustees invite their friends to join, which means you end up with more of the same.

But, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Which is why I want to share my experience of how to create the best and most effective board for your charity…

Make open recruitment a priority

To be effective charities need a wide range of skills that can only be acquired through having people of different backgrounds sitting on the Board. We need these different perspectives in order to spark debate. Able to challenge different points of view, rather than just agreeing with one person’s idea, you’re forced to consider each item in more detail – ultimately, this is how you’ll reach new outcomes and make your charity stronger.

Sitting on your Board, you need people who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo and share their opinions. But equally, you need people who are prepared to listen, rather than shout down someone they don’t agree with. It’s this healthy debate that ensures everyone’s views are taken on board, and an informed, collective decision reached that everyone supports.

So how do we ensure that you don’t default to recruiting in your own image?

Perform a ‘Board Skills Audit’.

This simple exercise identifies where the gaps are in your Board and helps you to create a role description that makes it really clear the skills gaps you need to target.

For example, a poverty relief charity might have various skills on the Board, like an accountant and a lawyer. But if the trustees all have household incomes above the national median, they don’t actually have anyone that knows about poverty relief. Without having a trustee that’s been on the ground, they’re missing the perspective of what the beneficiaries really need, and if the services currently being offered are fit-for-purpose.

Getting your trustees to admit that they lack certain skills is really tough, which is why I always run this as an anonymous exercise – because in reality, it doesn’t matter about who can do what, it’s about having the right skills overall to best serve the charity and it’s beneficiaries.

Create a strong interview process

At one end of the trustee spectrum, you have the buffet chasers – people that will happily go anywhere for a cup of tea and a chat, but they’re not engaged. At the other end you have those who are intent on getting too involved in the day-to-day nitty gritty.

The key to balancing the needs of management and governance is to recruit the right skills, which in many ways are similar to core business skills, like:

  • Listening: someone that’s willing to hear new ideas and not dismiss something because it’s not ‘the way it’s always been done’.
  • Collaboration: trustees take collective responsibility, so you need someone who will work to explore every challenge/opportunity and support any outcome.
  • Fearlessness: someone who isn’t afraid to ask questions, particularly the awkward ones, because that’s how you get to new/better ways of working.

But the #1 thing you need to establish during this process is someone’s motivations. What you get out of being a trustee is more of a feeling than anything financial, so you need to know why they want to be a trustee – and a trustee of your charity specifically – so you can determine how involved they’re likely to be.

For example, I’m a trustee of Wood Street Mission. I know I have the skills, knowledge and experience to help the charity, but I volunteer my time because what it does matters to me. I have 4 boys who are lucky enough to have certain opportunities in life, but that’s not because of anything they’ve done, it’s because of the family they were born into. I believe in creating equality for all so that we don’t keep repeating the same destructive cycle, and through the charity I believe I can help make this happen.

So how do we assess who’s right for your charity?

Create a ‘Trustee Behaviour Framework’.

You need someone who is passionate about what you do and why, and someone who’s going to add value to the charity and its beneficiaries. In the corporate world, they create company values that each employee is assessed against – this is the principle behind the Trustee Behaviour Framework.

In creating a persona for what your ‘ideal’ trustee looks like, including how they act and the traits they bring to the role, you can interview against this framework to ensure you ask the right questions and assess the core attributes they’d bring to the role.

Don’t forget about onboarding

While open recruitment is one aspect for you to consider, you also need to think about how you onboard your trustees to make them feel welcome.

Given that people are volunteering their time – on average 5 hours per week[5] – you need to do everything you can to remove barriers and make their new role as easy as possible to perform.

For example, just because your monthly board meeting has always been held on the first Tuesday of the month at 10am, doesn’t mean that you should keep doing this – particularly if it means you risk losing a good trustee. If someone is working a full-time job, getting time off or needing to take holiday to attend meetings is going to be tough.

So how can we be better at accommodating people to make trusteeship more appealing?

It’s all about thinking flexibly.

One good thing to come out of the pandemic is that it’s forced us to re-think the way we work. For example, the use of video conferencing has increased dramatically. While you might not want to host every meeting online, having it as an option will give trustees the flexibility to attend every other meeting in person.

One of my clients was adamant about delivering its services face-to-face because it saw this as the charity’s core strength. But when the pandemic hit, it was forced to change the way it worked, and in the process created something better that improved their offering and potentially deliver more services to more people, enhanced their internal operations, reduced costs and created new revenue streams.

You can read more about EmployabilityUK’s digital transformation here…

Focus on acquiring specialist skills

Often it’s the case that there’s one person who possesses a particular skillset on the Board. For example, if one of the trustees is an accountant, typically anything to do with finance falls on their shoulders and everyone simply agrees with whatever they say.

But the Board has collective responsibility. This means that you need more people with the same skills in order to have that healthy debate that challenges people’s ideas and helps the charity arrive at new/different/better outcomes.

I’m not advocating that everyone on your Board has to suddenly rush out and study for their accounting qualifications. Only that you need to ensure your Board possesses the breadth and depth of skills needed to best serve the charity and its beneficiaries.

So how we ensure you have the skills that matter without hiring more of the same?


In the corporate world, employees are used to receiving performance appraisals where their manager will discuss any improvements and suggest future training.

Within the charity sector, any trustee appraisals I’ve seen are typically a casual chat with the Chair over coffee (if they happen at all). And while trustee training is out there, the emphasis is on the individual to seek out whatever they need help with.

As part of the charity Secretary role I hold with some of my clients, I always highlight appropriate training opportunities within the governance report. By placing training in the spotlight, it ensures that continuous professional development is an ongoing priority, which strengthens the skills on the Board and ensures the charity is best placed to make more informed decisions to support their beneficiaries both now and into the future.

Read more about developing the Board…

Your beneficiaries deserve the best

My team is now back in the office, so if you fancy a face-to-face coffee (or more than happy to stick with video conferencing!) let’s talk about what we can do to ensure you form the most effective board for your charity.

Contact us…

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