8 key lessons for young trustees
I've been a trustee since I was 18 (and I'm now 23) and have served on the board of the incredibly dynamic, complicated and fantastic global children's charity - Plan UK. I have also been a trustee of Leap Confronting Conflict and Interact Worldwide. Most recently, I joined the board of Brook, the young persons sexual health charity.
Through these roles I have identified 8 critical lessons that I see repeated throughout the sector and some of them are unique to young trustees:
1. You will experience tokenism. I fundamentally disagree with tokenism. However, it has always niggles at me that many charities initially appoint younger trustees because they want to diversify their board for 'diversity sake' and sometimes appointments are therefore tokenistic. You can deal with it by turning the opportunity of your appointment into a challenge. use your time on the board and challenge yourself to demonstrate your ability. This will leave absolutely no doubt in anyone's mind that younger trustees can add just as much value as anyone else.
2. Your age does matter. Of course, it shouldn't but I've always found that young trustees have to constantly 'prove themselves'. You're young: therefore people think you lack experience or the technical expertise and knowledge you need to be able to add value to the board. Although this may be true to some extent, boards operate as a team - you make decisions collectively and usually by consensus. There are times when older colleagues need help. Eventually, you may be one of the most experienced trustees on that Board and it's fascinating watching the tables turn. There is also real value in sometimes asking the most simplest of questions; someone with a lack of knowledge can often be exactly what the discussion needs. Oh, and every time you have an external guest, they will look confusingly at you and if they haven't been briefed will think you're the tea maker! When they learn you're one of the trustees they treat you differently; it is hilarious to watch but also quite frustrating. It feels a bit disappointing that they only treat you with respect because you have decision making powers.
3. You may get assigned 'youth issues' like participation or digital. In my experience this isn't because they don't trust you, but because there's an assumption that if you're young then you are a default digital expert, even if it's not part of your specific skill set. On the other hand, whilst you don't want to be pigeonholed this can be your chance to demonstrate your skills - so dive in, take a chance and ask for guidance, advice and support if you get lost.
4. You're not the only one who doesn't understand all the papers. I guarantee you that every time you ask a clarifying question about an element of the papers there will be another trustee in the room that gives a sigh of relief. You are responsible for ensuring that you understand the issues that you are making decisions on. So, ask away!
5. Governance is something you learn by being a part of it. Running organisations isn't easy and governance can be complicated, but knowing when you're over stepping the mark, or when you're not doing enough is something you learn on the job; governance is not really a textbook issue. Once you've mastered it, you'll find that most governance structures in most organisations share the same characteristics.
6. You may feel awkward more times than the rest of the board. UK boards are increasingly adopting the US model of asking trustees to donate money to the charity. Well, most young people don't have the kind of cash that charities are looking for at their disposal. Don't worry - if they engage you properly, you'll be an ambassador and donor for life. If you can't donate large sums, consider the possibility of a small, regular donation or maybe look into fundraising - who knows, you might raise a couple of grand! And remember, you are giving your time, there is value in that and a good board will recognise that; and, they cannot force you to donate.
7. You'll learn more than you ever thought you would. Whilst also simultaneously utilising your skills in ways that are unique and novel to you. And, you are in a very unique position of being surrounded by talented folk from whom you can learn an enormous lot from. You should evaluate your own skills gap and seek formal training to develop your knowledge which is both good for your CV but also makes you a better trustee.
8. You'll be in demand, externally. Young trustees are still a novelty for most charities. People will ask you to blog, to tweet, to speak at events, to present to boards and to demonstrate your story. It's great if you can say yes, but also remember that you can say 'no' especially if you have to focus on work or University or whatever you do in the day.
Finally, you'll have a great time. Enjoy it and please make it part of your role to share your story and champion charity trusteeship for everyone.
Thanks to Leon for agreeing to let us re-publish this blog which was originally published on his LinkedIn profile. You can contact Leon through Twitter or LinkedIn.