Recruiting and inducting trustees remotely

Janet Thorne
Chief Executive at Reach Volunteering

Some boards have postponed recruiting new  trustees because they worry that it will be difficult to interview and induct remotely. However, charities that have given it a go have found that their process has worked well, with a few tweaks. We share their tips here, along with reasons for getting going, now. 

Right now is the best time to recruit

A strong, well rounded board is particularly important right now. Charities are facing big strategic and complex decisions about their operations, and their future. They are pushing through significant changes, like moving services online,  in weeks rather than years. The board needs to be confident in areas like digital, to be able to balance risk and opportunity and make swift decisions. It is vital to have the right expertise for this around the table. And as wider society begins to grapple with racism in the UK, boards need to engage with diversity with more urgency and start recruiting to address gaps in representation. 

Happily, Coronavirus has created a ground swell of people wanting to contribute and help. Anecdotally, corporate social responsibility partners have told us that they are seeing a fresh appetite from employees to volunteer. Our own data shows a threefold increase in people signing up to volunteer. And these people are following through on their intentions: we have seen a surge in the numbers of people applying for trustee roles. Since many charities have postponed their recruitment, many of those boards which are recruiting at the moment are receiving record numbers of applications. 
 

It is easier than you think

‘We've just recruited a new chair of trustees at Yes Futures and the process has been surprisingly smooth. We did two rounds of short interviews on Zoom with different trustees participating in each round, plus an informal catch up / 'getting to know you' phone call with the CEO.’ 

Rachel Knight, trustee at Yes Futures

Common worries about recruiting remotely include:

  • It will be difficult to test the candidates properly, or to get a rounded picture of them 
  • Candidates will not have the opportunity to get a real sense of our organisation
  • It will be hard to induct new trustees effectively and swiftly. 

Charities that have recruited remotely have found it easier than they expected, and in some ways, easier than recruiting in -person. The process they carried out was similar, with a few tweaks. If you think it essential for the prospective trustee to visit the premises, you can always get on with recruitment, but leave the final appointment pending, until a visit is possible.  

‘It's much easier to arrange interviews since there's no travel so the process can be sped up. People don't need so much notice to "get" to an interview.' Penny Wilson CEO of Getting on Board

Boards felt that they did get a good sense of the candidates, and that candidates got a good sense of the organisation. And it really is possible to induct new trustees online, and make them feel part of the team swiftly - you just have to be a bit more intentional about it than you might have been in the past. 

Equity, diversity and inclusion

If you want to recruit trustees who bring difference in areas such as class, age, race, gender or sexuality, you need to think about diversity and inclusion from the very outset. Recruiting for diversity is only meaningful if you genuinely value the  difference in perspective that these new trustees will bring to your board discussions and decisions. So the first step is reflecting on who is missing from your discussions, and how their participation will strengthen your mission. From this standpoint, it makes sense to identify potential barriers in how you operate and communicate that might deter people from applying. This includes practical aspects of the recruitment process, and, more broadly,  your openness to changing how you operate as a board so that everyone will be able to participate on an equal footing. 

Try running your plans for the recruitment process, and the recruitment materials themselves, by a couple of people from a similar background to the one you are targeting. They will soon tell you what is welcoming,  off-putting or confusing. Think about the composition of the panel too: a diverse mix of interviewers can provoke richer discussions and better insights. It can also help put the candidate at ease. Try seeing the process through the eyes of the candidates

Share details of the recruitment process with candidates in advance, and ask them what their access needs are.  Make this easy for them to do and be prepared to adapt the process to support these needs. Be aware that people’s needs vary a lot. 

'The vast majority of deaf people are those with “hearing loss”, often experienced later in life. As many as 1 in 6 of us in the UK have hearing loss, so it's highly likely that recruitment on any scale will include deaf people and even more likely that we won’t identify as deaf or as having hearing loss! Be patient with the person who asks several times for information to be repeated and think about rephrasing what you’re saying it doesn’t matter how many times you say “fan” to me, I’ll keep hearing the word “van".' James, CEO of SignHealth

'Remote meetings for deaf people, including deaf people who use British Sign Language to communicate, are full of access challenges. Each video conferencing tool has its pros and cons. You can read more in James' blog

‘'Remember the value of lived experience there is real benefit in the different perspectives that we as disabled people bring to our work and volunteering which non-disabled people cannot. I unashamedly think that we should get “points” for that!' 
James, CEO of SignHealth

More, shorter interviews

Keep interviews short. Most people agree that one hour is the maximum before fatigue sets in. Instead, have more than one interview, each with a different focus and audience - for example, trustees, staff and service users.  Ruth, President of the Association of Chairs, emphasises that it is important to have at least two interviews, even if you only have one candidate who fits the bill. This will help both you and the candidate get a more rounded picture of each other.  Geetha, trustee of Crisis,  points out that video conferencing makes it harder to see how candidates might interact with other board members, so it is worth thinking through how you might test this in one of the interviews. 

Plan

Plan the whole process in advance. This is important for inclusion (see above) but, as Ruth points out, everyone is dealing with considerable uncertainty at the moment, so providing candidates with full details  of what to expect from each step of the process is more essential than ever. 

Structure the interviews well. Decide in advance who will ask which question to avoid awkward pauses. If your CEO is on the panel, make it clear what their role is. Are they part of the decision making group?

Recognise that video conferencing is more tiring, so build in breaks for interviewers; don’t see too many in one day. 

Compensate for loss of non-verbal cues

Geetha emphasises that non-verbal cues such as body language, eye contact, facial expressions and interaction with others are less easy to read via Zoom, so there is more scope for misunderstanding or making wrong assumptions about a candidate. Hold this in mind, and ask candidates to elaborate. 

People tend to read a gap between a question and response as evidence that the person is less authentic and enthusiastic, but it is likely to be a feature of the tech. It is helpful for candidates to be aware of this too: if they are more conscious of how they might come across, they can be explicit about anything that might be misinterpreted.
 
This cuts both ways. Lottie Wihl from Prospectus recommends that you think about how you come across to candidates. They too have to make do with fewer non-verbal cues. It is off- putting to present to four blank faces, all muted. Try to interact in a more dynamic way. Have at least one panel member unmuted and remember to nod! 

Be mindful of the impact of Covid

People are having very different experiences of coronavirus. Video conferencing can both exacerbate this difference and make it less obvious. Geetha points out that a candidate may be fitting your interview in between a day of back to back zoom meetings, or they may have much more time than usual. Keep this in mind when considering their application or performance. 

Build in informal communication and put candidates at ease

‘One thing I miss is the chat when you go to collect candidates from reception/or equivalent - this puts them at their ease and is a nice way of getting to know them.’ Penny, Getting On Board

With remote recruitment  you miss the impromptu, informal opportunities to connect so design them into the process. Suggestions include dedicating the first five minutes of the interview to informal chat. Ask candidates something informal and be ready to share something yourselves, to put them at their ease. 

Make it easy for candidates to show their best self. It is difficult to feel judged when offering yourself on a voluntary basis so be sensitive to this. They may have anxieties about tech so offer them an opportunity to try it out the day before, and make it clear that you will not judge them by their setting or the state of their bookshelves. 

Induction

A team changes every time someone leaves or joins, and joining an already established team remotely is more difficult. Ruth, from the Association of Chairs, recommends that you give thought to what will make them feel welcome, and ensure that you check with them what they need, too.

New trustees will miss the informal communication and information you pick up from being there in person. On the plus side, remote induction is much more flexible for getting new trustees together with different people. Again, the trick is in the planning: lots of small group and one-to-one meetings or phone calls. Try and replicate some of that informal connection by setting up meetings with a wider set of people through an event like an informal team lunch which gives new trustees a chance to put faces to names. It will be harder for new trustees to pick up clues about less tangible things like board culture so get the board to talk about it - for example discuss whether you relate to each other as colleagues, friends, formal business partners.

If a new trustee has no previous experience of governance you need to be more proactive about how you support them remotely, than you might have been in person. Useful tactics include pairing them up with a mentor or buddy who can provide support and answer questions that the new trustee might be reluctant to ask in front of the whole board. It can be helpful if the mentor gets in touch before board meetings to go through papers and explain  the context, previous decisions and relevant history. 

TLC: Talk Listen Change’s induction

TLC: Talk Listen Change is inducting five new trustees, four of whom have no prior board experience. Maggie Shannon, Deputy Chair, has developed an induction booklet, structured along the lines of the Charity Commission’s welcome pack for new trustees. It includes the following. 

  • A welcome from the Chair. 
  • Key information about the charity such as its services, beneficiaries, articles of association, finances, strategic plan, and team.
  • What to expect from board meetings such as who attends, that observers are welcomed, that board papers are sent out a week beforehand, that trustees are encouraged to send in questions before the meeting to save time, and that there is no such thing as a daft question. 
  • Guidance on the role including what’s expected of you between board meetings, scheme of delegations, what your role is and isn’t. 
  • Practicalities such as the expenses policy, IT systems and dates of meetings. 

 
Maggie followed this up with a phone call to each new trustee, so that they could ask questions about the content, and to explore  their individual interests and needs. Based on this, she then lined them up with meetings with the appropriate staff member or trustee. 

At the first board meeting, Maggie introduced each new trustee to the board and each other. They also started with check-in that was important: it helped replicate the informal chat that occurs in-person, and also meant that everyone, including the new trustees, had already spoken at least once before the formal part of the meeting started, making it easier for them to speak later. 

'We have found that trustee recruitment post lockdown has actually been easier to organise and more streamlined. And by adapting to a more agile, flexible approach to recruiting, these boards are demonstrating an openness to change which is appealing to candidates.' says Rachel Ord, TrusteeWorks Manager at Reach.

Remote recruitment and induction takes a bit more thought and planning to do well, but this investment will pay off by improving your process, and stand you in good stead for future recruitment rounds too. If your board has a skills gap, or lacks diversity, now is a great time to recruit. Don’t postpone just think of the fresh energy and valuable perspectives that your new trustees will bring!

 

Many thanks for being so generous with their thoughts and experience:
Geetha Rabindrakumar, Trustee of Crisis, on recruiting a Chair
James Watson-O’Neill, CEO of SignHealth, on recruiting inclusively, for deaf people
Lottie Wihl, Senior Consultant at Prospectus, on the candidate experience
Maggie Shannon, Deputy Chair of TLC: Talk, Listen, Change on inducting five new trustees
Penny Wilson, CEO of Getting on Board, on recruiting trustees
Rachel Knights, trustee at Yes Futures, on recruiting a chair
Rachel Ord, TrusteeWorks Manager, on recruiting for other charities
Ruth Lesirge, Hon President of Association of Chairs, on everything

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