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by Chris Creegan
09 March 2021
Comment: Charity boards need  an injection of youth

Holyrood

Comment: Charity boards need an injection of youth

Among many fault lines exposed by the pandemic has been the generational divide. While older people have been at greater risk of illness and death, young people have seen their aspirations truncated, horizons stunted. The need to ensure they are part of creating a better society has never been starker.

Yet look around most charity boards in Scotland and you won’t find many young faces. When it comes to charity governance, youth is a relative concept. Under 50 is young. Under 40 is practically adolescent.

This has never been clearer to me than right now. By the time this edition of Holyrood is out, I will be just a week shy of my 60th birthday. According to Taken on Trust, a 2017 Charity Commission report, 60-62 is the average age range of a charity trustee in England and Wales. The same report revealed that 8,000 charity boards had an average age of over 75.

By contrast, Charities Aid Foundation research shows that despite making up 12 per cent of Britain’s population, 18-24 year-olds account for less than 0.5 per cent of all charity trustees. Among grant makers the situation is more acute. According to another 2018 report, their trustees were more likely to be retired than the overall trustee population. And 27 per cent were aged over 75.

We don’t routinely collect charity trustee data in Scotland, but there’s every reason to assume the problem is at least replicated, maybe worse. This is despite a widespread recognition that we must do more to ensure charity boards reflect the communities they serve.

I’ve had the good fortune to sit on charity boards since I was in my 20s, promoting social action on LGBT rights, male violence and HIV/AIDS. For the last 14 years I’ve been privileged to chair two charities promoting causes close to my heart, Scottish Adoption and the Scottish Association for Mental Health.

Applicants for charity trusteeships often cite the notion of ‘giving something back’. It’s a well-intentioned sentiment, but for me it strikes the wrong note. While I’ve always enjoyed making a contribution, being a charity trustee has more than returned the favour. It’s probably the best form of continuing professional development I’ve had. And the organisations have benefited too, as I’ve taken learning and ideas from one to another.

Too often we’ve regarded charity trusteeships as something we do at the end of professional careers – an extension of them, keeping busy in retirement, doing good work. We’ve not done enough to make the link between charity governance and volunteering through the life course.

In a blog post for the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator published in 2019, Cordelia Sampson, chair of trustees at the Edinburgh Students’ Charities Appeal, highlighted five excuses given for failing to recruit younger trustees: young people don’t have enough knowledge, skills and experience; they aren’t interested; they can’t be found; supporting them takes too much effort; and they don’t have time. Cordelia rebuts these excuses all too easily – because that’s what they are.

The Get on Board programme run by Dr Miles Weaver at Edinburgh Napier University aims to enable students to develop leadership and decision-making skills and make a positive difference to communities. The programme was set up in partnership with the university’s Governance Forum, and a group created by Napier students, now known as Young Professionals as Trustees.

Julie Hutchison is a charities specialist at Aberdeen Standard Capital Charities and visiting professor at Napier. Her current Next Gen Now webinar series is promoting charity trustee roles among young people. Initiatives like this matter – and can make a difference. But there is so much more we can all do to promote and extend opportunities.

In the end, we need a culture change. This includes more transparent recruitment practices and better trustee induction. The pandemic has shown we can do a lot of routine business online too. Building that into the way we work in future could open up opportunities for time-pressured young people (and those for whom geography prevents involvement). And, in my view, fixed terms for trustees are a must.

Ultimately, change won’t happen unless those of us who have had our fair share of going round the block get out of the way.

It isn’t just about what young people can do. It is about us too – and until we face up to that, we will keep rehearsing the same statistics. Of course, all this applies to public sector boards – but charities can, and should, lead the way.

This isn’t an argument against wisdom and experience acquired over the life course. It’s not an either/or situation.

Neither is it about recruiting young trustees at the expense of the 50:50 campaign for women or a much-needed push to get black and minority ethnic, and disabled people, onto charity boards. No charity trustee brings just one characteristic. If we are creative enough, we can have it all. 

Young people aren’t just the future – we need to make room now.

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