How to recruit first-time trustees

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Why recruit first-time trustees?

A good board is a collective which draws together trustees with a range of different strengths and experiences. For this reason, you only need a few trustees with previous board experience. This is good news: the pool of people who have board experience is limited, so removing this restriction means that you can appeal to a much larger and more diverse group of people. 

First-time trustees can bring a wealth of valuable experience, skills and enthusiasm, and a fresh perspective. Traditional approaches to trustee recruitment favours those with prior experience so recruiting a first-time trustee requires a different approach. Rethink the process through the eyes of someone unfamiliar with governance. Make each step of the process a positive experience and create a level playing field. The aim is to set first-time trustees up for success!

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Tips on recruiting first-time trustees

  1. Reflect on what you are looking for
    A long list of skills and achievements can be intimidating to a first-time trustee. Look at what is ‘essential’ and where you would consider a willingness to learn. Be clear that prior trustee experience is not required. 
  2. Recruit a group
    Recruit more than one first-time trustee at the same time. They can give each other peer support and it can help them to feel more able to raise questions or ask for support. If they come from different backgrounds to other board members, they can feel less lonely. It also makes induction more efficient and fun!
  3. Keep it clear and simple
    Most people have no idea what trustees do, and trustee recruitment often uses lots of jargon. Demystify the role of a trustee: remove all jargon from your advert and role description and write in clear and accessible Plain English. Ask someone from your target audience to review your materials and give you feedback on anything that is confusing or off-putting. 
  4. Actively support people to understand the role 
    Give candidates a clear understanding about what a trustee is and the time commitment. Share expectations of the role. You could offer an open evening or an informal chat with existing trustees. Share background reading including where to find support and guidance on trusteeship such as the guides Become a Trustee and How to Become a Trustee
  5. The covering letter
    First-time trustees often fall at the first hurdle because they don’t know what to put in the covering letter. Spell out what you want them to address in the covering letter. 
  6. Describe the recruitment process
    This is useful and reassuring for people going through the process for the first time. Provide details of the process at the outset so that candidates can prepare accordingly, and flag any accessibility issues. We recommend sharing questions in advance too - it gives first time candidates a chance to consider and reflect. This is a much better test of how they will perform as a trustee than springing unfamiliar questions on them!
  7. Offer a good induction
    Describe the training and support that you will provide in the recruitment pack. This will give prospective candidates confidence that you are serious about welcoming first-time trustees. There is plenty of good, affordable trustee induction training available. You can also pair them with an existing trustee to ‘buddy’ them through the first year. For example, your Treasurer could provide an introductory grounding in charity finance. Give candidates the confidence that you will help them to get up to speed and ensure that they will thrive in their new role. More induction ideas.
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Charity insights on recruiting trustees

A new approach to attract the right people

Laura Sercombe, CEO at Girls Friendly Society

To strengthen our governance and assure GFS’ long-term future, we wanted to recruit a diverse group of people who not only had the right expertise but had a real passion for the charity and the challenges ahead. We knew that this would include people who had never been trustees before, so we overhauled our recruitment process including running two online welcome events. 

These were a game changer. We shared, with a real sense of honesty, the opportunities, our strategy and what we are looking to do. We were overwhelmed with attendees and the conversation went on for much longer than we expected! They were really engaged with our work, and asked lots of challenging questions. The result was that we received over 45 applications from women looking to get involved at trustee and committee level. 

We ended up recruiting eight trustees (three of whom are under 30 years), three committee chairs, and also have a pipeline of further committee members and future trustees. Our new trustees have the expertise that we were looking for and bring greater diversity in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability. Just as importantly, they have a real enthusiasm for GFS and a strong desire to play their role in our plans.

Girls Friendly Society is a charity working to support girls and young women in England and Wales.

A trainee board programme

Sarah Gee, CEO at Spitalfields Music

Being based in East London, where there are 137 languages spoken in our schools, diversity and inclusion is at the heart of all of our decision-making, including governance. When we last advertised for trustees, we were lucky to recruit some brilliant people, but we also saw a number who really didn’t understand how boards worked, nor the legal and financial responsibilities of being a trustee. As a way to change this, we created a shadow board programme to increase the diversity of trustees on our board and more widely, in the cultural sector. 

It’s a simple idea: we recruited four members to the year-long scheme, and they attend all Board meetings - something that was new to many of them. Our Chair is brilliant at involving them in all discussions, and challenging them to add value and bring their experiences and thoughts to the table. They each have a trustee buddy and I meet with them before Board meetings to explain background to the agenda items and answer any questions they have. We also support them with training, which we pay for. 

It would be great if some went on to join us as full trustees, but it would be an equally good result if they decided that trusteeship wasn’t for them right now, or indeed they went on to join another charity’s Board. This idea is now being picked up by other arts organisations so our next plan is to build a cohort of charities and trainee trustees to provide a network of like-minded individuals and to grow the pool of potential trustees for everyone’s benefit.

Spitalfields Music is a creative charity that uses music to bring diverse communities together.

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Trustee Recruitment Cycle

The Trustee Recruitment Cycle helps boards recruit openly, for diversity of skills and experience. Providing information, tools and examples from real charities, we take you through the whole recruitment process.

Reflect > Prepare > Advertise > Shortlist & interview > Appoint & induct > Evaluate