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November 06, 2020

5 Things I’ve Learnt From Being a Trustee

So, I’m a Trustee on two Boards.

At GirlDreamer of course, and over at NCVO. They’re very different yes, but the responsibility I have and feel is all the same because they’re both about steering and supporting two organisations in the social sector that are working to do their best for the communities they serve.

This is what I love and what I’m passionate about, but there’s also a process and a system that I’m in that I question and take issue with now and again.

Here’s a few things I’ve learnt from both my own experiences, plus those bonus experiences you see around you and the observations you make along the way in this sector.

Let the fun begin ..

  1. Representation dwindles – I mean, why not start with the obvious one right? We see the lack of diversity, the stats show it and yet, here we (still) are. My own understanding is that there’s a breakdown in the process that’s causing accessibility issues as the first problem. We run an advisory board programme at GirlDreamer to support more women of colour in becoming Trustees and one thing I keep hearing, is the lack of knowing who or what a ‘Trustee’ is, the process to get there and the ‘old school’ criteria of actually becoming one. Much of it is outdated, so when trying to “diversify” candidates, we first need to look at diversifying the criteria, the communication and the process. We need to focus on the root, not symptoms – only then can we truly understand what’s not working and what needs changing.
  2. Death by jargon – my God does this one cause my brain unnecessary confusion or what?! Jargon is probably the most off-putting thing when applying to or thinking about becoming a Trustee. When you constantly see language that makes no sense, you don’t know whether it applies to you or not and most of the time you’ll assume not. It creates a pre-conceived idea that this new space will be filled with more that you don’t understand and honestly, who wants to willingly walk into an uncomfortable environment that feels like it’s not for them? For the love of all that is progressive, please remember “simplicity is key”. It doesn’t make you look any less intelligent, I promise, it just creates better pathways to representation. If this one is an issue for you, we’ve got a free jargon buster resource for you here.
  3. The responsibility is real – this one is for those thinking about becoming a Trustee, but are unsure of what key role Trustees play and let me tell you, it’s a big one. Being a Trustee for your own organisation and being one for someone else is a really different experience. When I’m taking on the responsibility for GirlDreamer, it’s familiar because it’s my company. I started it, I know it, I run it, I work for it – it’s a comfortable experience and impacts me and my community directly. Being a Trustee for another organisation is super different, in that, I’m so detached from the inner-workings and the day to day, yet what I do, say and bring to the table can affect all the people who are putting in the work and who will be impacted directly as a result. This distinction is important because the thinking has to become broader and your push and pull factor will have a different setting because you are alongside a broader group of people who are responsible for an even broader group of people. Take that ish seriously!
  4. Learning is key – and constant. The great thing about being a Trustee is that you learn A LOT. About yourself, about others and about things you simply never knew. Being on a Board isn’t always exciting, the meetings can be long and there can be literal hours where you won’t speak because you’re unsure of what is going on, especially if it’s all new to you. However, there’s beauty in those moments because they present an opportunity to learn. Learnings you can take and think about in your own organisation or job role outside of being a Trustee, learning new terms and language or simply learning about different people, how others think and gaining perspectives you may not have had otherwise. For me, learning is never a bad thing and if you’re open to doing so, then being a Trustee sure will teach you a lot whilst simultaneously teaching others around you too. This exchange of learning is key to any persons development and growth and is another reason why Boards need that all important representation and difference in perspective. Without it, the learning goes as far as talking to yourself in the mirror.
  5. The sector is S L O W – ok so, this is more of a general sector observation that trickles into Boards. When trying to think about how we make the process, the experience and the point of Trustees as efficient and relevant as can be, we really need to look at speed. It is so incredibly slow and yes I know, patience is a virtue and all that jazz, but the world is moving fast, society is forever changing, the same issues are getting bigger by the day and people need answers. Back in the day when the sector was first formed, the pace of life was slower because the world was in a different place, but with the way things are now, we need to move with it, not behind it. Processes, policies and protocols, whilst incredibly important at times, also present a lot of unnecessary “faff”. It’s why change is so slow and why issues go round in circles in this sector. It goes a little something like this – “representation needs to change? Great, agreed! Now, let’s spend the next 3 years developing our diversity plan so that in 10 years, we can change the stats by 1% and then congratulate ourselves on how progressive we are and how much we’ve achieved in that realistic timeframe”. I’m sorry, what?! 10 years? Why would anything need to take 10 years and especially something this simple. It’s a matter of human willingness to change and develop which can be instant or at least quicker. Those processes, policies and protocols can actually cause unnecessary blockers because we overcomplicate them. Do we need them? Sure. Can we revise them? Please. Especially if the sector is expecting a younger, more representative future, the pace needs to be picked up like, yesterday.

There’s definitely more I could add to this list as I have many, many opinions on just about everything, but I wanted to share some key and balanced opinions. There’s things that suck in the sector, but there are also key growth moments too and an opportunity to create real change in the world. My overall opinion though? There’s still so much work to do.

Before next years ‘Trustees Week’, my hope is that we will truly have taken big strides as a sector to understand how the work we do for society must have as much of society reflected in the spaces where decisions are made. If not, then we remain in the ‘saviour complex’ and that’s not what society needs more of. Society needs systems that work for them if they are to exist in the first place. Society needs representation at the top, so that people’s real problems and challenges are addressed from a real place of lived experience. Society needs to be empowered “with” not “to”. I said this in a speech a year ago today and I will say it again, we need 3 things happening all at the same time – accessibility, accountability and allyship.

It’s everyone’s responsibility and until everyone realises that, the responsibility will continue to fall on those experiencing the symptoms at the hands of those who are root cause.

Here’s to hoping to write a very different blog next year ..