cordelia sampson young trustee

Cordelia Sampson, Chair of Trustees at the Edinburgh Students’ Charities Appeal, made this speech at the ACOSVO Trustees Week Conference 2018.

She identified five common excuses for charity boards not having young trustees. And then she not only provides reasons and research to demonstrate why these excuses are invalid, but shows how charity boards can be better by themselves by using this information to their advantage.

“Let me start by saying that I am aware that my presence on this stage is unlikely. People my age are not often given the opportunity of a platform like this. I’ve promised my fellow trustees that I won’t waste it. But I’ve also promised that I won’t avoid sharing a few hard truths.

We are an incredible sector. We do amazing things. We save lives, we create opportunities, and we develop leaders, but we CAN be better.

There are about 100 charities represented in the room today, with a wide variety of purposes, & incomes ranging from a few thousand pounds to tens of millions. But, with a couple of things in common, we ALL have trustees and we can all be better. Perhaps many of us can be better in one way in particular.

Because, based on the survey many of you filled in, over 80% of you have something else in common. You don’t have any young trustees, which, for the purposes of this event means trustees under 27.

I was born on the 24th of October 1991, so by 3 weeks I am technically no longer a young trustee. But I have been Chair of Trustees at Edinburgh Students Charities Appeal (known as ESCA) for 2 ½ years, having been a trustee for 6 months prior to that.

ESCA has existed for 150 years to provide support to any student in Edinburgh who wants to fundraise. I had been involved with ESCA for 2 years as a volunteer on the student committee, including as President in the final year of my undergraduate degree.

As Chair I have attended a lot of events similar to this one, and it’s impossible not to notice the absence of other young people. The way I have been treated and spoken to at these events only reinforced my feeling that young people aren’t seen as potential trustees. Even when attending an event SPECIFICALLY for Chairs of trustees, most people assumed I was a member of staff.

If you are aware of the benefits of young trustees, and understand why it’s important to involve them, what’s stopping you? What excuses are you using for not having young trustees? And are any of them valid?

The average age of trustees in the UK increased from 57 in 2010 to 61 in 2017 and the number of trustees over 60 increased from 42% in 2005 to 67% in 2012.

You probably all know this already. The need to increase the number of young trustees was raised in 2001 by NCVO. Since then it has been regularly advocated for by some of the most prominent organisations in the charity sector.

There has been a lot of high-profile research and campaigning. The Charity Commission published guidance on it in 2010. At this conference in 2013, Miles Weaver spoke about the benefits of young trustees. Everyone I’ve spoken to about the issue has agreed that it needs to change. But, nothing has.

So, I started thinking about WHY nothing has changed. If you are aware of the benefits of young trustees, and understand why it’s important to involve them, what’s stopping you? What excuses are you using for not having young trustees? And are any of them valid?

I don’t believe so. And I hope that by going through some of these excuses, using research, as well as my own journey as a trustee, some (or all) of you will realise that actually, there is no excuse for not involving young people at board level. And given that this is the Year of Young People in Scotland, it seems like the perfect opportunity to instigate/initiate genuine action for change.

cordelia sampson acosvo trustees week young trustees

Cordelia Sampson speaking at the ACOSVO Trustees Week 2018.

1. The first, & most obvious excuse. Young people don’t have enough skills, knowledge or experience.

They DO. It’s just not the same as that of existing board members. But that’s a good thing.

Let me tell you a little about my journey at ESCA. I became Chair somewhat unexpectedly. Our previous Chair stepped down with very little notice and I was appointed interim Chair, despite being the youngest trustee.

However, about a week later, our then only member of staff handed in her notice, as she moved on to the next stage in her career. This meant I had to lead recruitment, induction and line management of new staff having never had a job myself.

When I emailed the board informing them of the resignation, I got 3 replies from a board of 12. Safe to say, I felt a little out of my depth. But, I knew the organisation, and I knew what I thought needed to change. So, I did a lot of googling about staff management, charity governance and accounts and got stuck in.

Since I became Chair we have increased the number of young people on our board, employed an additional member of staff, increased the annual amount raised for charity, increased the size of our student committee, produced our first organisational risk register, written our first set of volunteer policies and restructured our annual report.

It has been a steep learning curve, but one that I, and our other young trustees have relished. This is partly because of our acute awareness that we don’t know all the answers.

And that’s the thing about young trustees. They will ask the questions other people won’t.

And that’s the thing about young trustees. They will ask the questions other people won’t, even though others are often sitting there thinking the same thing but feeling unable to ask because of their 20 plus years of experience. By asking these questions, they will almost certainly improve the understanding of the whole board, and will challenge long-standing beliefs – this leads to innovation and change which can only be a good thing.

One of the best summaries I’ve read about the skills and experience young people bring to a board comes from The Roundhouse who have had young trustees since 2005. They said, “Since the introduction of young trustees we’ve seen a real transformation that is felt across the organisation. We now have a board that actively listens and is engaged; that’s constantly challenged and challenging. Young board members bring with them innovative and fresh perspectives. They help us to remain relevant.”

I couldn’t decide whether to include this one, because it shouldn’t be the only reason young people are brought onto a board, but I felt it was too important to miss out.

They will bring digital skills. Charities with high digital capability save, on average, 20% of their working week and are ten times more likely to save money than none digitally capable charities. Yet, only 21% of trustees think they have sufficient digital skills on their board.

So, clearly, young people do have skills and experience which any board would benefit from.


2. Young people aren’t interested.

My personal favourite. As President of ESCA’s Student Committee, I spent over 20 hours a week volunteering, whilst in the final year of my degree.

I wasn’t a trustee, but I did attend the “student part” of trustee meetings. The trustees constantly said, we’ve got to do the boring stuff now, when referring to the trustees business. It was always framed as though it was of no interest to the volunteers.

I’m not sure where this reasoning comes from. Most of your organisations probably have young volunteers. If they’re volunteering – they ARE interested in your charity, and if they’re interested in your charity, the chances are, they might be interested in having a say at board level. But, they probably don’t even know it’s an option.

Over 90% of trustees find the role personally rewarding and regard it as important or very important to them. If young people are given a chance, they will find this too.

I’ve heard people say things like, “young people would find board meetings boring”. Again, I don’t know where this idea comes from. Do you find board meetings boring? If not, why do you assume young people will? Over 90% of trustees find the role personally rewarding and regard it as important or very important to them. If young people are given a chance, they will find this too.

For a large proportion of charities, young people are the beneficiaries. How can you claim that they’re not interested? The Scottish Seabird Centre recently tried to recruit a young trustee. They had so many quality applications they ended up appointing two.

Research by Young Charity Trustees found that, once they understood the role, 85% of young people interviewed would consider becoming a trustee.

So, now we’ve established that young people are interested…you might say…

3. We can’t find any.

My first challenge to this is to ask: where are you looking?

71% of trustees say they were recruited through being asked directly by an existing trustee. Over 90% of charities recruit most of their board through word of mouth and existing networks. So, it’s not particularly surprising that they can’t find young trustees. If you are only speaking to people like you, then you will only find people like you.

But this practice is worrying. Whether or not your organisation has staff, trustees are quite probably THE most important and influential individuals in a charity. And yet, much more time and effort is put in to recruiting (even junior) staff. I doubt many (if any) of you would even think about appointing a member of staff without at least seeing their CV and holding an interview. And I suspect most wouldn’t consider not advertising a role. Why do you think that’s OK for trustees?

Young Trustee will advertise your vacancy and send it out to their database of young people who want to be trustees.

The next excuse is probably that you don’t know where to advertise. Luckily, the International Voluntary Service has a new project, the Year of the Young Trustee. They have a stand today where you can sign a pledge to recruit one young trustee in the next twelve months. They will advertise your vacancy and send it out to their database of young people who want to be trustees.

So, that’s not really an excuse anymore. But, if you do find one…

4. It will take too much time and energy to support them.

I’ve read a lot of advice on how to support young trustees and one thing seems pretty obvious to me. The things you should or need to do to support young trustees are things you should be doing to support ALL trustees anyway.

In fact, I think it’s important that young trustees AREN’T treated differently. They need to be given the same level of respect as any other trustee. Don’t assume that because they are young they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Provide them with a proper induction. At least 30% of charities offer NO induction at all. I don’t know why because I don’t think anyone would expect a new member of staff to just get started without an induction. Regardless of how much experience someone has, whether as a trustee or in business, they haven’t been a trustee at YOUR organisation. Businesses are different to charities, and every charity is unique, so if you want your trustees to add anything, then you need to give them the necessary information and guidance.

Ensure they understand the meeting papers. This should happen routinely, but there is too often an assumption that everyone understands everything. Reviewing whether board papers are clear and easy to interpret will almost certainly improve all trustees’ contributions.

It’s important that young trustees AREN’T treated differently. They need to be given the same level of respect as any other trustee.

Conduct a skills audit and organise training for trustees. SCVO found that only 65% of participants felt confident in their skills as a trustee. The House of Lords recently published a report which stated that induction and ongoing development is “essential for charity trustees in order for the sector to work effectively”. This is because “trustees need to feel confident and well-informed in order to provide strategic direction, oversight and challenge”.

I completely understand that charities have limited capacity, but, investing in the development of trustees, of all ages, will benefit the entire organization. It ensures that trustees remain engaged and feel they are able to contribute for longer.

So, if you acknowledge that actually, young trustees don’t require any more support than other trustees, you might say that…

5. Young people don’t have time.

I think this is mostly about the fact that young people might have jobs, so don’t have as much free time as a typical retired trustee. But, unless your entire board is retired (and even then), every single board member will have some other commitments which have to be worked around. It’s no different with young people, and in fact, some companies will allow people to take paid time out of work to fulfil a trustee role.

Equally, contrary to popular belief, young people don’t devote all their free time to frivolous pursuits. For many, the volunteering they do, is an integral and important part of their free time. And there are statistics to reflect this.

In the Scotland Giving Survey last year, 94% of 16 to 24 year olds had engaged in charitable activity in the last year. This is the same percentage as those over 65 and more than people aged 45 to 64. And 16 to 24 year olds were the MOST likely to have volunteered out of all age groups.

Volunteering is an integral and important part of young people’s free time.

Additionally, there are about two hundred and fifty thousand university students in Scotland. Many of whom are already involved in charitable activities in some way. The Get on Board programme, which was started at Edinburgh Napier, has now been launched at Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling Universities as a way of capitalizing on the enthusiasm of students, and providing them with a pathway into trusteeship. The fact that this year alone, over one hundred students are dedicating their time to developing governance skills, even without a guaranteed trustee role, demonstrates that young people are willing and able to invest time in being a trustee.

So, I think it’s fair to say they definitely DO have time, or will make time, to support charities.

I hope I have, all be it briefly, countered most of the excuses for not having young trustees. Young people can do it, we want to do it, we have the time and skills to do it and WE ARE READY.

So, my final message is not combative or critical. It’s not a call to action or a demand. It’s a simple fact.

We have an opportunity. WE CAN BE BETTER. We can reject the excuses of the past and build diverse boards that truly represent our society, or we can continue down a path towards irrelevance. We can build boards based on a mix of skills and perspectives, or we can perpetuate the myth that says the only measure of experience is how many decades you’ve lived. We can be better.

We can sign up to Young Trustee and remind ourselves that good leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders. Then we can be better.

When age (and gender, and race, and faith, and disability) are no longer barriers to participation in our boards, we can and we will be better.”

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acosvo png logoWe would like to thank Cordelia Sampson for her permission to republish her speech here. Follow Cordelia on Twitter.


Find out more about ACOSVO, Trustees Week and ESCA.