Trustee Week gets under way today, and there have been plenty of calls that we should sign up more young people as trustees.
As a former young trustee, I’m not convinced this is the best idea.
In my teenage years and early twenties I was a board member at my student union, and remained involved as a volunteer until about the age of 25.
But the board was a chaotic, unruly affair. Students came and went quickly, based on friendship, whims, and the inevitable commitments of work and study.
It was rare to get the whole board in the same place, due to chronic issues with diary management. Many board members spent all their time in the union bar, one flight of stairs down from the boardroom, so it wasn’t too difficult to make it along to meetings, but board members were prevented from attending by work, study and social commitments. Sometimes we just forgot. Turning up for other scheduled events such as the AGM was tricky, too – and persuading non-board members almost impossible. Mostly we had to promise free beer to passers-by to get the AGM quorate.
And when we did make it to board meetings, we weren’t always effective. It wasn’t uncommon for the board to knock off class and started drinking at one, and to turn up a few to the good. This was before the smoking ban, so board meetings were also conducted with a cloud of cigarette fumes in the air.
Even sober and sensible, our ability to manage conflicts was iffy. The board was riven by cliques, by petty arguments, and the fall-out of short-term relationships. At one stage, the president of the union had an affair with one of his committee convenors and attempted to use his position to have her dismissed. At another point, one of the board was banned from the building for smoking marijuana in the toilets. At yet another, the board tore itself in half when a student, disliked by one half of the board but good friends with the other half, was accused of assault.
And we were terrible at governing anything. When a set of accounts was presented to us, we stared at it in bafflement and just blindly accepted what we were told, except for one accountancy student who had a stab at some questions, but was tied up in knots by the general manager. We were running an organisation that turned over well over £1m, but could not construct a business case, make a risk assessment, or evaluate the legal issues associated with any decision.
Our ideas were short-term and ill-considered, and we struggled to sift the important from the mundane – we once spent two hours arguing about whether to have beer mats in the bar. Many of our resolutions were ignored by the management, and for the most part, when the professional general manager overruled our decisions – even when he had no constitutional power to do so – no one ever argued.
Surprisingly, all of this did not prevent it being a wonderful experience for me – not least because one of the perks was 24-hour access to the student union – and I loved doing it. But it hasn’t left me sanguine about the ability of young people as effective trustees.
Your twenties are supposed to be spent in a combination of working hard building your career and playing hard whenever you aren’t. People in their twenties have chaotic, fast-changing lives – they move city and country, go travelling, change their jobs. They have shorter-term relationships and few community commitments. They are not, in short, in a good position to commit to trusteeship, and it’s questionable whether they have the skills.
Old trustees, on the other hand, know what it’s like to be young. They have a lifetime of experience and reflection. They tend to have more time and money. They tend to have more commitment to communities which have nurtured their children and grandchildren. They have at least knowledge and, one would hope, wisdom.
And beyond all that, they want to do it.
When recruiting trustees, I would say: stick with the over 50s.