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Thinking about becoming a trustee? Just do it!

Gary Forster joined CFG as trustee six years ago before being appointed as Chair. His career began as a volunteer at Transaid, where he worked his way up to become CEO five years later. After a short career break to travel, he joined Publish What You Fund as CEO in July 2018. He has sat on the boards of three charities, including CFG.

 

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During Trustees’ Week 2021, we talked to Gary about what he loves about being a trustee and why age should be no barrier to leadership…

Could you tell me about your experiences as a trustee?

I’ve sat as a trustee on three boards and have found each experience very rewarding. You get to see how different organisations do things. Most people only ever have one job at a time, with one employer. To get the opportunity to experience how another organisation operates, to see how things are done, is hugely valuable – you can increase your breadth of awareness and it brings you different experiences. CFG’s recent Annual Conference is a good example of this. When you see an organisation which you’re involved with doing well then you can’t help but bask in that achievement. Being a trustee is enjoyable and rewarding.

 

Do you think the expectations of trustees has shifted over the past few years?

I don't think the expectations have shifted but there's more attention paid to the importance of governance now, and rightly so. Partly, I think it's because of some of the things that have happened [in charities in recent years]. Although that’s not a new phenomenon – there have always been charities that have had problems. Also, I think we’re seeing the media discussing this more and so governance is coming to the forefront in that way. But fundamentally, the role of the trustee hasn't changed dramatically.

Have the perceptions of what makes a good trustee changed?

There is plenty of evidence to show that trustees are taking their responsibilities more seriously than ever and fulfilling their roles more diligently. I think though, that some people see becoming a trustee as too great a risk and that’s unfortunate.

Many younger people can see it as a role for someone much more senior than them, with more experience. That’s not the case at all, but we’ve seen this with our own trustee recruitment for CFG recently where really great people have said to us that they didn’t see it as a role for them because of their lack of senior or board experience. But we want, and need, different people with different perspectives, ages and backgrounds on the board.

How important is it for a board to be diverse and inclusive?
It's everything. We need to reflect on the fact that our boards should be representative of not only the teams that run these organisations, but the people that these organisations exist to serve, all stakeholders.

I think it's important because we want a diverse range of views and opinions. Many different perspectives will give you more options and a more rounded view of the issue, as well as what the potential solutions can be. So, it’s extremely important, and I think we’re still on a learning journey with this.

What have you learned recently?

From my own recent experiences, it’s about recognising that diversity and inclusion are two separate things. There’s the making sure you have different perspectives, but it’s also about making sure those different perspectives are heard equally. It’s important to understand that people have different ways of communicating.

There are those individuals who feel able to make their point immediately, in the middle of a meeting. And there are those who are going to want to take 48 hours to think it through and come with a more considered but quieter approach via email two days later. Understanding how individuals work, and how they communicate is something we’re striving to do better at, so at CFG we’re on that learning journey.

Do you think current trustees have a responsibility to encourage the next generation?

Absolutely. We have a very proud history of philanthropy and charity in the UK that is built on generations of people stepping forward to sit on charity boards. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of trustees and without them we wouldn’t have the impactful charity sector that we have. We should be proud of that and so, yes, I think we do all have a responsibility to encourage others.

I like to think that any organisation would make time and space for someone to sit on a board if they said they wanted to become a trustee. It can only be a good thing for someone – and their employer – if they do that. And it doesn’t matter which sector you’re working in; you can still benefit from being part of another organisation. I’ve seen how other organisations manage their finances, how they’ve designed their programmes, how they think about risk, and so much more. You can learn from all the best bits, and hopefully help where it’s needed too.

What makes a great trustee?

Firstly, I think passion for the cause. You have to have an interest, so that you’re not only tuned into what the organisation is trying to achieve, but also be tuned in to what’s happening in the wider world around it.

Secondly, I think you have to know how to play well with others. Part of this is understanding that you’ll not always be able to get your way on every issue – the reality is that you’re not the only voice at the table. We see statistics about how often Premier League footballers have the ball and it can be less than a minute in a game. It’s the same with trustees. You’ve got a very limited opportunity to speak and say your piece. That doesn’t mean you won’t be heard, but a debate might not go your way and you’ve got to recognise that the debate is an important part of governance, not necessarily the outcome.

Thirdly, from a governance perspective, you’ve got to want to know what’s involved. Take time to read the Charity Commission’s guidance (CC3) and get to understand what your roles and responsibilities are.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about becoming a trustee?

My advice would be to just go for it! If you care about a cause, you understand the sector or the issue or problem the organisation is trying to solve, then reach out to the CEO and ask to speak to them about it. They will sense your passion and they’ll find opportunities for you. It doesn’t matter how young you are, what sector you’re coming from or what your background is.

As I said earlier, read the Charity Commission’s guidance and understand it. To start with, just take a moment to familiarise yourself with the basics – what the role is and what it isn’t. Being a trustee is a unique and valuable opportunity and if you care about the cause you’ll need to understand where your responsibilities start and finish, so that you can do that role really well.

Being a trustee is enjoyable and incredibly rewarding. So, if you’re passionate about a cause and want to share your skills and experiences to increase impact, just go for it!

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