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Voluntary trustees – are we paying a price for this principle?

Every few years a minor argument breaks out in civil society about whether or not we should allow trustees to be paid. Every few years, someone laments the fact that it’s hard to attract people to trustee roles and every few years someone else says that public trust is helped by voluntary trusteeship, that the voluntary principle is at the heart of who we are and that it would make no difference to the number and quality of trustees anyway. And at some stage we point smugly at the FTSE companies and the NHS trusts that do pay, and tell ourselves that they don’t have inclusive boards either.
And every few years after the row subsides again, I’m left feeling deeply uncomfortable. Partly because I know how hugely I have personally benefited from being a trustee. (I will always treasure the memory of a Very Important Person in the charity world portentously reminding me that no-one should ever benefit from their trust, while I reflect on the personal, professional and generally life enhancing benefits I have received from trusteeship).
But also because the voices of those saying that payment for trusteeship is wrong nearly always come from people who are already trustees. It’s a bit like those people who have already easily negotiated the rickety stairs and narrow doors of a meeting room describing the room as absolutely accessible. Those of us lucky enough to have salaried roles which allow time for trusteeship, or those who earn enough to enable them to give their time, need to be very cautious about advocating a model that may not always work for everyone.

I’m interested in hearing from someone on very insecure earnings, who loses pay every time she goes to a trustee meeting. And yes, advocating for time off (as NCVO does), is important, but it only seems to apply for those in secure, salaried work. I’m interested in hearing from the many people I have met who wanted to join a housing association board but knew that it might imperil their benefit payments because they were no longer deemed available for work. I’d like to hear from young people, scrabbling to piece together an income in really difficult times who would like to take on a role – and are so desperately needed by charity boards – but cannot risk the possibility that they thereby miss out on a shift or a freelance contract that takes them out of town.

I’m not comfortable with a debate that doesn’t ask the views of people who are currently not sitting round the trustee table.
Are we content for our trustee boards to be staffed by people who are either salaried, or on a final salary pension schemes or who otherwise have sufficient income to allow them to make what is in effect a substantial donation to their charity of choice? It’s also worth remembering that many of the same arguments were used to justify MPs not being paid, a stance which ensured that people were only represented by ‘men of means.’

Now I actually believe that on balance there are really strong – indeed compelling – arguments for keeping trusteeship voluntary. Theoretically, it allows trustees to demonstrate some necessary independence, knowing that their income is not on the line if they present a dissenting view. Non-payment of trustees is still a distinguishing feature of the sector, which recognises the voluntary impulse at the heart of voluntary action. It’s important that people who can afford to, can give back in this way. What is more, for the largest charities which don’t seem to have any challenge recruiting trustees, it’s simply not necessary. And of course the vast majority of charities are not paying anyone anyway. Some would also point out that payment of trustees is a poor use of charitable money, (although if you think good governance is central to the success of the charity it seems odd that this is the one thing we can’t justify paying.)
But we should recognise that all of this does come at a cost. It does restrict the pool of people who can afford to do it. And the price we pay as a sector may be having governing bodies which are less inclusive than they might be. That’s quite a price.

But if we are going to reaffirm, yet again, the voluntary principle, then there are things we ought to do much more seriously . We ought to be much more explicit and much less embarrassed about the benefits received from trusteeship. How about recognised professional accreditation? We ought to be much more open about payment for loss of earnings. (And I don’t mean barristers having their fees reimbursed. I do mean the barista having her wages replaced). We definitely ought to be arguing forcibly for time off, but in an increasingly freelance economy perhaps we ought to also be asking for tax relief on time given.
And perhaps we need to think more about the future pool of trustees. As the ‘job for life’ disappears, we cannot expect employers to continue to release people for trustee duties as part of their development programmes not because they can’t but because they won’t have the same investment. And as the last generation of recipients of final salary pension schemes hang up their trustee boots, and as demands on trustees get ever greater, are there new and better ways of making sure that a charity set up today will be able to recruit a diverse, knowledgeable, supportive group of people to steer the next generation of charities?
Just arguing that non-payment of trustees is a system that has served us well for the last century may not be the best possible answer for the next one.

5 replies
  1. Steven Burkeman
    Steven Burkeman says:

    In my time at JRCT we were committed to ensuring that you didn’t have to be affluent to serve as a trustee. We paid for child care, and found other legal ways of paying expenses so as to liberate people to serve. Our trustees were not the Great and the Good, but intelligent and committed people in touch with the issues which were the focus of JRCT’s funding. This really is an important issue – trusteeship mustn’t be restricted to the wealthy or the retired.

  2. Catharine Brown
    Catharine Brown says:

    Hi Julia
    I have 2 perspectives to share as a trustee who until recently was a freelancer and now has a full time job
    1) tax relief or some financial recognition of having given time for free and therefore given up earnings would be hugely attractive to fellow freelancers
    2) a legal right to time off to be a trustee, as I would if I were a magistrate or school governor would stop me feeling guilty about taking time out of my busy job to be a trustee
    Thanks for raising the issue!

  3. Arvinda Gohil
    Arvinda Gohil says:

    Excellent article, thanks Julia. A few thoughts from me:
    There are some organisations with big brands who will always attract good trustees so why not have a tailored approach where payment can be made in certain circumstances e.g. to improve diversity; specific skill sets; lived experience; local knowledge, etc.

    Interestingly, I have a plethora of organisations approaching me to become a trustee. As I have no income, I am having to decline. Could a system be set up to pay ‘specialist trustee’ who join boards for a limited period to see through a crisis or particular project?

  4. Annd Davies
    Annd Davies says:

    Having sat on many boards both as Trustee and Chair payment is a tricky one. I’ve never been paid except when I sat on a Housing Association Board which was an allowance. In principle I dont think Trustees should be paid but that does impact on attracting diversity. In particular encouraging young candidates who would be great additions to the board. The role has onerous responsibilities. In my role of training governance there is a big problem about not providing good induction training. The argument being that if they know what they are responsible for they wouldn’t join!!

  5. Frank Bennett
    Frank Bennett says:

    I declare upfront my interests as Co-Founder of Digi-Board a company set up to assist charities to independently self-assess their governance against the Charity Governance Code. I am a former trustee and sit on a not for profit board. I qualified in 2015 from the FT Non-Exec Professional Diploma programme so I know the reality of a once naive trustee, @Annd Davies spot on observation last sentence, and now someone versed in Corporate Governance and the Charity Governance Code. The understanding of governance and the standards based on real stories shared with Digi-Board shock me. Example: Q. If you had a notifiable (to the Regulator) data breach what would you do? A. Cover it up because it would harm our reputation and negatively impact our fundraising. That, if later uncovered, would result in the harshest of fine/sanction by the Regulator (ICO). To another example. A senior exec from a global company joined a charity to bring specialist knowledge. It was such a mess and the trustees had no appetite to deal with their problems the exec was forced to leave to protect themself from damage to their personal reputation and potential financial liabilities. It is time to professionalise the charity sector. If that means paid trustees then it has to be. As Matthew Taylor of The RSA in his Radio 4 series ‘The Charity Business’ brought to attention; charities are businesses and need to be run with the same professional discipline.


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