Are young trustees really such a good idea?

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.

17 Responses to “Are young trustees really such a good idea?”

  1. Grant Taylor

    Hi David, I suspect that your view is shared by many, but here are a couple of challenges.

    Firstly, the whole age thing is so out of date. I have around 5 years Trustee experience and am still under 40, yet I can safely say that the two organisations I have worked with in this time would say that my contribution has been greatly valued. If we stick to the over 50s we disregard so much potential talent. How many current Trustees have set up their own businesses successfully in a recession, built brands, created customer loyalty and learnt their commercial acumen from reporting to venture capitalists? Exactly, not too many. How many over 50s really connect with young people (a large part of our society and the future of it too)? I am under 40 and have three children, yet I struggle to understand their views and perspectives at times. The 18-30s are generally bright and enthusiastic and want to contribute, they bring fresh perspectives and dynamism to Boards. People like you hold them back. Give me a diverse Board with a mix of people, including young and old, over a bunch of over 50s any day. I can assure you that with the right recruitment, induction, development and appraisal processes the age diverse Board will outperform the all over 50 Board every time.

    Secondly, your view of students is so out of date. Students’ unions are now mostly charities incorporated by the charity commission and most have externally recruited Trustees that bring the skills and experience to ensure that the mess you describe is very much in the past. Young Trustees on students’ union Boards are gaining valuable skills and experience that they take into the workplace. With the introduction of higher fees, and ever increasing debt, students take university much more seriously than perhaps you and I did. They work much harder to get a strong return on their investment – or in other words a good degree. The student population is also much more diverse with many international students and high numbers of post-grads and part-time students. The days of 18-21 year olds attending one or two lectures in the morning and then spending the day eating burgers and drinking beer are long gone!

    How much broader would your mind be now if your General Manager had decided rather than trying to ‘tie you all knots’ would have had the foresight to create a diverse Trustee Board that helped you grow and learn? I suspect you would respect the value of young and old together a little more.

  2. Aelish O'Rourke

    Is having a balance of different backgrounds not the key here? A group made up entirely of 18-22 year olds might create some problems, but that is not the same thing as including say a 32 year old on a board otherwise made up of over 50s.

  3. Mike Wade

    A good Trustee Board needs a range of different people with different experiences delivering against different roles. You may not expect the Honorary Treaasure or Chair to be a relatively inexperienced younger trustee, but it is a fallacy to say that this precludes younger people from playing any role at all. I’m not convinced that your student union experience is a useful analogy.

    In “Governance as Leadership” by Chait, Ryan & Taylor, 3 roles are outlined for trustees:
    1) Monitoring, Risk Management and Stewardship of resources
    2) Setting current strategies
    3) Future proofing and vision

    (my paraphrasing/summary)

    Sure, your enthusiastic 19 year old may not have most to offer on the first of these, but they may well bring a lot of insight to the 2nd and (particularly) the 3rd. And learn a hell of a lot in the process which will enable them to make more of a contribution as they go into their 20s and 30s.

    At the National Deaf Children’s Society we have benefitted massively from having an (award winning) “Youth Advisory Board” of deaf young people who advise the organisation on what they think our priorities should be going forward. My own experience as a trustee of a small local charity in my 20s was invaluable in developing my own strategic thinking, and enabling me to contribute effectively to the 4 national charities I am a Trustee for now. But as I am not yet in my 50s, maybe you think I should resign?

  4. Catherine Murray

    As a young trustee in her 20s, I seem to be doubly in David’s firing line here. I suspect this article is trying to play devil’s advocate but I’d take it more seriously if it actually had some concrete examples to support its case. Trusteeship is like any other job – trustees are recruited for their expertise and for what they can bring to a board. Charities are like any other organisation – a living organism with diverse needs and projects it wants to do well. Charities therefore must have a diverse mix of people on their trustee boards, as people below have pointed out.

    I would invite David to look a little further into what younger people can bring to a charity, especially in a sector where quick thinking and innovation can really work to our advantage. That, coupled with expertise and experience that other members of a board can bring, is the only way to help run a dynamic and modern organisation, as I know every charity aims to be.

  5. Leon Ward

    Oh dear. Firstly, I’d like to fully endorse Grants comments.

    I joined the Board of Plan UK when I was 18 after spending 4 years as a young advisor. Plan is a £60m organisation. I’m also a Trustee of Leap Confronting Conflict (£1m) and Ineract Worldwide (£3m). Your views of young people are archaic and wrong.

    I blog regularly for ThirdSector and would like to direct you to that blog where I outline the benefits of young trustees:- you’ll also find the perspective of a young trustee on several strategic issues for organisations.

    If you’d like to discuss this in depth I’ll treat you to a coffee!

    • Mark Atkinson

      Leon and Grant both make valid points. From my perspective, having previously produced the winning tender for the BLF YPF Support and Development contract, I welcome the the participation of young people on Trustee Boards or in the case of minors on Advisory groups.

      I think it is fair to say that it is not going to be right for every charity but for those whose raison d’etre is to support young people in some way, shape or form, it should be regarded as best practice to ensure that their views are heard at the highest level. Building a culture of participation within any charity is not a quick and easy thing to do well and no doubt there are some that pay it lip service. However, those that truly engage can reap the dividends by reference to services that are more grounded in the needs of their beneficiaries and the ability to generate more funds from grant making bodies who respect their integrity and commitment.

      Mark Atkinson, VCSchange

  6. Paul Darigan

    Catherine Murray and Leon Ward have already covered just about all I wanted to say, but I will add this – David, you need to get out more and meet more young people that are taking senior volunteer roles within non-profits, I think you’re missing out on the opportunity to find out just what it is that young people have to offer the VolSec.

    Please, take Leon up on his offer of a coffee, you will be massively impressed.

    Some additional thoughts, from my own experience:

  7. Chris Shelley

    This is an interesting view David but I think it highlights just how far students’ unions have come in recent years.

    The experience you share will be common among those students and sabbaticals who were trustees of their unions up until about 4 years ago, when they were exempt charities. I myself was one in 2002-4 and it was similar to you: the ‘trustee board’ was actally just the group of elected students who stood, not to be a trustee, but for a whole range of other reasons. It was an inconvenience, if anything, to have to think ‘like a trustee’ every so often.

    However since the Charities Act has required students’ unions to register as charities the development in SU boards has been immense. Training, support and guidance is given to sabbatical and student trustees all year round, from their own unions and from NUS. The balance of boards is much better, with a range of elected sabbaticals and students, who are in some cases selected for their skills and knowledge, alongside external ‘lay’ trustees who are absolutley selected for their skills and knowledge.

    All this creates two significant differences from the story you tell. Firstly the boards themselves are far better prepared, discuss the right issues and seek the right advice, making the unions stronger and better charities. Secondly this support develops the young trustees on the board far better than they ever were in the past – meaning when they leave the union they are going out into the workplace with skills far beyond the majority of their peers. And of course these skills can be utilised by charities who seek a ‘different’ type of trustee.

    So going for the over 50s shouldn’t be the only route a charity seeks when recruiting. Besides, if we only do that then what happens in the next generation? A good board is balanced, and there is a huge pool of talented people out there who not only have something to offer, but can do so for another 50 years.

  8. Aimee Packwood

    As a Twenty something member of a steering group, I’m quite offended by your blog. Just because you were an unreliable trustee doesn’t mean all young trustees are. I do have a busy life (although it is not chaotic), but I prioritise steering group meetings, as I believe it is important. I may not have the experience that some members of the board have, but I hope I bring freshness and new perspectives, as well as enthusiasm and willingness to get stuck in. I really believe diversity is key to ensuring organisations stay vibrant and up to date, and I would hate for organisations to be put off involving younger people as trustees by this ill informed blog.

  9. Jennie Gillions

    I was on the same student union board as the writer, at roughly the same time, and I can safely say the article is exaggerated. The anecdotes are true to an extent, but they present a damagingly lop-sided picture; utilising a blanket ‘we’ is hugely unfair to those board members who took great pride in their roles and were hard-working and responsible. I agree with Grant when he suggests a more diverse board would have been good for all of us – I and several of the friends I shared that amazing experience with would have relished the chance to complement our youthful enthusiasm with some real skills that enabled us to manage properly the responsibilities we’d been granted.

  10. Romaine Maret

    Up until June 2012 I was a Students’ Union Officer and Trustee. I ran in elections partially because I wanted to experience Trusteeship and working for a charity before deciding if it was something I wanted to follow as a career path. I also wanted to make a difference to the student experience and truly cared about the work I did.

    Being a Trustee helped me develop professionally and personally, helped me understand the hardships that charities face in the current climate and showed me the importance of honesty and integrity in the work place. In return I felt I contributed positively to the charity and made a difference during my time in office. If I didn’t understand something (especially financially) I would simply ask instead of blindly accepting… after all, that’s what we paid the finance staff, our CEO and an independent auditor for.

    To be honest, I’m a little disappointed that you applied your experience at your Students’ Union to the wider world – whilst your experience reflects what Students’ Unions were like not so long ago, even I (who had a relatively positive experience in office) understand that Students’ Unions are unique in the way they work.

    I would love to join another Trustee board and whilst I’m only mid-20’s I feel I have lots to offer a charity; I would hate for a blog entry like this to be what stops me getting my next Trustee position.

  11. David Ainsworth

    Well, I didn’t expect this blog to be quite so well read as it has been, or cause quite such strong feelings.
    (Even a former union president got in touch with me last night, in an email that started “Harrumph!” Although I’m meeting her for a beer next week, so she obviously wasn’t too upset about the portrayal.)

    I’d also thank those who – while criticising this blog – have gone out of your way to point out that they normally appreciate my views, which is very flattering.

    This piece has certainly had the effect I’m paid for, because it’s generated a lot of interest, but I don’t think it’s had the effect I wanted, because my aim is to provoke a discussion, and people seem to feel instead that I’m just being rude. That wasn’t my intention, so I hope I can steer this back to the debate I wanted to have.

    When I sat down to write a blog about young trusteeship, I had a number of points I wanted to make, but I found my own experience pushed its way to the fore, because the overall topic was a bit dry, but the picture of a union in chaos was, in contrast, a lively one.

    I will say that everything in my personal story actually happened, but that of course, I’ve stretched a point in places, and been contrarian in others.

    Alongside what I’ve described, there was also a great deal of hard work, innovation and enthusiasm. I loved it, and learned a lot, and would recommend it to anyone.

    There is no doubt, though, that the issues I raised are real ones. The board did suffer from conflicting demands on its time, with some very emotional issues, and with a lack of some key skills.

    Despite this, I actually still believe that students are the right people to run student unions – not least because they are the only ones who really understand the needs of the membership – and I think young trustees should be included, for the same reason, in all youth organisations. There needs to be a lot of training and support, but that’s not an insurmountable issue.

    The main issues I really wanted to provoke comment on, though, are these: Why are more young trustees needed? Is “not many” the same as “not enough”? What is the right target level for young trustee participation? Is it parity, or will there inevitably be a slant towards older trustees?

    I have much more I want to say on these questions – and I’d like to hope it would be an intelligent and thoughtful critique of the needs of a board, not an assault on young people – but I’m running out of space here. If people are interested, I’d like to hear your views, and will share my own, below.

    • Mike Wade

      David – thanks for the update. I think my main problem with your piece is that is is a dangerously bad analogy. Take the hypothetical question “should we have at least one successful businessman/woman on our board to bring commercial experience, even if they do not have a detailed understanding of our work?”. The answer may well be yes, as one or two such people may be a useful addition, depending on the make-up of the rest of the board and the challenges the charity faces. I feel you have taken this type of question however, and then painted a picture of a completely unbalanced board full of nothing but corporate types in response. The point is to find a healthy diversity, not a new type of monotone which is as bad or worse than what went before.

      So – younger trustees to be included in the mix of a board? Yes please. A board made of nothing but youth is s different issue completely.

      • David Ainsworth

        Hi Mike

        I would actually support a board for a student union that is primarily youth – a membership club for young people should have those members thoroughly represented.

        When I set out to write this blog, it was actually in response to a CAF piece which said, in essence, “there aren’t many young trustees so we need more.”

        But I wasn’t convinced those two statements went together. The fact there aren’t many doesn’t necessarily mean we need more. Maybe we do, but the first assertion doesn’t prove the second.

        There seems to be an idea that we need parity – that people will only be happy when we have 20 per cent of the board under 30 – but there are very good and real reasons why there aren’t many young trustees and if we ignore those reasons, we risk promoting people for the sake of diversity and equality rather than application and ability.

        Along the way, I found that my own experiences took over – normally I try to write nuanced, balanced, carefully constructed evaluations and this time I just felt I was getting a bit dull and wanted to liven things up. It certainly got people talking.

        As I said, those experiences are all real, but it’s hardly a balanced and comprehensive assessment of my university life. I’ve erred on the side of the entertaining, so I think it’s fair enough to criticise attempts to draw extensive conclusions.

        I think my actual points are these:

        1. You develop more skills as you get older, and boards need skills. (Of course, before I get shot down for over-generalising, I should say there are some skills that younger people possess more of – including, but not limited to, social media and knowing more about young people. Beyond this, you could certainly argue they present a fresh vision.)

        2. Many young people have lives which are not ideally structured for trusteeship. In my twenties I lived in seven different towns and three different countries. I moved house more than once a year, and changed jobs several times. My friends and siblings don’t have wildly different stories. It’s difficult to be a trustee in these circumstances.

        3. Some young people obviously want to be trustees, but I think the inclination becomes stronger as you get older. Trusteeship is often rooted in community. I can look back at the example of my father, a serial trustee, and those he worked with. Most first became interested in community service when they had young children and began to put down roots, and grew more deeply devoted as time went by.

        None of this, of course, suggests that there aren’t very good reasons to recruit young people who want to be trustees and have the skills to help. None of it suggests that we’ve got the balance right today. The number of boards who say they are seeking greater diversity suggests that we haven’t, necessarily, and Leon Ward has written several pieces on this website which make a persuasive case for the advantages of more youth.

        But it does suggest that there will always be lots more older trustees and that young trustees will remain relatively rare, and that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this demographic. I believe that as we get older, our skills, lifestyles and resources are likely to become more suited to the task of trusteeship, and if you attempt to ignore that fact, you risk harming the sector, not helping it.

  12. Jay Downs

    It saddens me to think that so many people share these thoughts about young people, students, and Students’ Unions.

    Firstly: The Professionalism of Students’ Union:
    Over the last 20 years Students’ Unions have been professionalising in response to internal pressure from fed up students, external pressures from sharing of best practice from NUS and Universities – their main funding body, and as a result of better legislation, in particular the 1994 Education Act, and the rights and responsibilities for Students’ Unions which came with that. Most recently, most Students’ Unions are now independent charities, with well running trustee boards.

    Secondly: Generalisations:
    I find it difficult process and respond to your mass generalisations: Old people are like this… Young people are like this… Instead of these types of generalisations I would suggest that People are People – some people are reliable, and some people are unreliable, some people like to drink alcohol, and others are teetotal. Anecdotally, the people sitting in the Students’ Union pubs drinking from noon onwards are old men, not students or ‘young people’. Interestingly, however, this doesn’t mean that I think all old men are alcoholics…

    Thirdly: The role of Trustees and Young People:
    It is my understanding of trustees that their role is a mix of three aspects: Skills, Knowledge, and Perspectives. Now, young people will have a different type of knowledge than older people – less informed by information per-say and more by experiences. Their skills may not be polished, but you wouldn’t bring a young person onto the trustee board to act as your lead on HR, Conflict Resolution, of Financial Strategy. What young people can offer is perspective. You may have heard of ‘Group Think’ – some people are able to break this by having the fantastic ability to say exactly what they think, and not worry about their political relationships with other members of the board or how they will appear. I would suggest that sometimes younger people are more able to do this than older people. I also think that regarding organisations where ‘young people’ are the focus, user group, membership or part of a target group, having someone to soundboard ideas off of, or offer a perspective can be vastly helpful.

    Just to add a little context, I am 23, I would consider myself one of your ‘young people’, previously served as a trustee on a Students’ Union as a full time student officer. Currently I am a trustee of another charity, and I work as a Volunteer Co-ordinator in a Students’ Union, where I placed 500 students into volunteering opportunities last year. I could put you in touch with a multitude of charities that rely on young volunteers, and without them – would not be able to operate.

    In my opinion, an organisation which closes its doors on involving young people is shooting itself in the foot. The energy and enthusiasm, the time they are willing to give, the ability to be open minded and change any of their preconceptions, the willingness to engage in new things and push themselves beyond their existing ‘comfort zone’, these attributes don’t exist exclusively in young people, I wouldn’t be so close minded to say that, however, a lot of young people do have these and are willing to give up their time to contribute and make a difference.

    Being a trustee isn’t for everyone, whether young or old. Some people enjoy volunteering in a less formal setting. Some people don’t enjoy reading and analysing reams of papers. At the end of the day, it’s about finding the right person for the role, regardless of age, gender, race, or any other factor you may choose to discriminate or cast aspersions on.

  13. Nina Davies

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who read this and just had to respond! I think a board of trustees entirely comprised of those over fifty would be just as challenging as one of people only in their twenties. I’m a charity trustee and certainly one of the youngest amongst our board. I know I bring lots of relevant knowledge and experience to the role and equally so do those who are retired and significantly older than myself. I appreciate the extent to which their knowledge, experience and opinions differ from my own. It really helps to ensure we’ve looked at a situation from different angles and considered all relevant options and solutions. I hope David and those like him can be more open minded in their opinion of younger (or perhaps even just middle-aged?!) trustees in future.

  14. Annie McDowall

    I’m delighted that at SHARE, we’ve recruited two young trustees. One of them played a key role at a recent strategic planning event, and her ability to facilitate a workshop and elicit diverse opinions, and present the conversation in a coherent diagram was refreshing and impressive. Diversity’s the key.


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