Trustees now need to be professional volunteers. Is that a good thing?

Trustees now need to be professional volunteers. Is that a good thing?

Joe Saxton's blog explores the challenges of trustees being professional volunteers
Joe Saxton

I will confess to being a recent convert. I love working with a recruitment agency to find new trustees. The quality of applicants and the inclusiveness of the process improve the governance process beyond measure. Indeed, I now am of the belief that the sector should no more appoint a trustee without an open and transparent recruitment process, than they should a CEO.

These changes in my own personal attitude are in part down to a wider change in the way that trusteeship is, or at least should be, viewed. Trustees are now professional volunteers. Trustees need to see their roles in just the same way that any employees see their job. While a trustee may be unpaid, their responsibilities are no less real or substantial than any senior management role. So trustees need to be recruited, inducted, managed, trained and appraised in the way that any other senior staff would be. Here would be a few things that could look like in practice:

  • Trustees are recruited in an open and transparent way
  • Posts are filled based on specific needs on the trustee board
  • Chairs are specifically recruited to fill that role
  • New trustees are inducted and trained
  • Trustee performance is reviewed and appraised

These five areas are all good, laudable goals. I support them all – well almost. The practice of being a trustee, being a professional volunteer, of being in a role that has standards and minimum expected performance, is much easier in theory than in practice. Why go to the hassle of time-consuming recruitment when somebody knows somebody who’d be really good?  Why not let so-and-so be chair if they are keen. The list of reasonable excuses is long and flows easily and I have seen all of them, been part of them, in the ten or so trustee roles that I have had.

Of my five good practice goals, it is the last one that I struggle the most with. Appraising trustees is much easier in theory than in practice. While I used to think that interviewing people to be a trustee was a little tacky, I now see it as pretty straightforward. Not so with trustee appraisals.

Part of the problem is the difficulty is deciding how to judge a trustee’s performance. If they don’t turn up to meetings, they probably have a busy day job. If they are quiet in board meetings, the topics may not be ones they want to contribute on. I recently had to look at reappointing trustees and struggled to work out how to evaluate somebody’s performance. In the end, I settled for a chat on the phone to see how they felt about things. Yet a chat on the phone is hardly cutting-edge governance practice is it?!

Compared to members of staff, the ability to evaluate trustee performance I find much harder. When I try and rationalise this it’s for a variety of reasons. It’s much harder for a trustee to be proactive on an issue than it is for a member of staff. It’s harder for a trustee to really scrutinise staff, especially if staff are unresponsive or uninterested. Equally, it’s harder for a chair to really know how a trustee is doing if that trustee does a lot of work between meetings or works with specific staff members. Perhaps I am just being a wimp.

So to answer my own question: it’s undoubtedly a good thing that trustees are becoming professionals who just happen to be unpaid. But for me, that doesn’t make it easy to put that professionalization into practice. And I’d love it if anybody had any ideas or experience on good ways to evaluate individual trustee performance. Failing that just call me a wimp.

Submitted by Mark Wiggin (not verified) on 4 Jun 2020


I have been a trustee of several charities and a CEO of a couple to know that the critical success factor is the relationship between the day to day operational management of the CEO and that of the trustees that can be distilled down to the quality of the relationship between the chair and the CEO. I think the most important quality of a trustee is not their professionalism but their passion, commitment and time given to the mission of the charity. In appraising their role this is what I would want to measure along with their ability to work together in a spirit of friendship and respect for each other and for the people or cause the charity serves

Submitted by Brian Davidson (not verified) on 4 Jun 2020


Document the behaviours you want to see in Trustees, share with the Board and get agreement, then as Chair ask each Trustee to feed back anonimously (if you have the system for that, but worst case as Chair you will know who said what perhaps)on their fellow trustees' performance against these criteria and then have a one to one feedback chat with what you've been told - its amazing how self aware most folks are. By the way, I believe the Chair should as far as possible be elected by the Board and not directly recruited - gives continuity and enables the Board to be led by someone they have trust in and respect for.

Submitted by Dr John K. Euers (not verified) on 4 Jun 2020


I understand the impetus behind this, and see it as probably necessary with charities that have employees, or pay honariums, but it seems to me that it is divisive. By that I mean, that if you are looking for "professional" trustees, that is very different to looking to engage people form the groups that the charity is supposed to serve.
It starts to smack of the 19Century boards who set up many charities, especially the national ones, where they were the people who "told" those who were to benefit how to, what to, do with their lives. In other words, it is a move towards the "gentrification" of the government of charities.
The question is: Is this a moral crusade per 21st century? and what is the reason for this? Is it a worry about the emergence of a vocal "hoi-poloi"?

Submitted by David Muir (not verified) on 4 Jun 2020


Some ideas on trustee appraisal:
1) set expectations - active participation in board meetings, using their key skills on the board, working well with other trustees (not always easy)
2) ask trustees at start of the year what they want to achieve and learn from being a trustee, then you have some specifics both both the trustee and assessor (chair?) work with
3) try having trustee 'champions' for various aspects of the charity's work, such as a particular service, fundraising, volunteering, etc, then you can measure achievements and contribution
4) behaviours - how effectively does the trustee work with other trustees and the CEO
5) does the trustee demonstrate understanding of governance, scrutiny and strategy aspects of a trustee's role.
Hope this helps!

Submitted by Sarah Roberts (not verified) on 4 Jun 2020


Hi Joe, I have been doing one to one chats annually for a while with my trustees. It's fairly informal - what's working, what's not working, how they would like to see things done differently if at all. Harder to get proper feedback directly from them on my own performance! I agree it is rather nebulous and hard to judge. However you're right it is becoming a 'professional' role with considerable reading around to keep up to date becoming a necessity. We have just completed an external governance review and am hoping that out of this will come a policy to start a more formal review against a set of guiding 'principles and working practices' so watch this space.
Kind regards
Sarah Roberts Chair Thames Valley Air Ambulance and ex Chair of Pancreatic Cancer UK

Submitted by Malcolm John (not verified) on 5 Jun 2020


Hi Joe, great article. We really really must move away from the old boys informal network recruitment of trustee. Especially since brilliant organisations like REACH Volunteering and Getting on Board offer free and v
low cost trustee recruitment services. The Association of Chairs recently produced an excellent leaflet for Chairs on working with trustees including the not easy task of trustee appraisal.

Submitted by Sheila Cahill (not verified) on 5 Jun 2020


I work as a governance consultant in the non-profit sector in Ireland. In my experience, a call from the Chair once a year to ask individual trustees who they thing they are doing would be a massive step forward in trustee appraisal. I think the best staff appraisals start by asking people how they think they are doing. Its an invitation to self-reflection and opens up the possibility to discussing improvements if there is something tricky that needs addressing. I wouldn't dismiss the simple or obvious solutions as a cop-out.

Submitted by Frances Hurst (not verified) on 5 Jun 2020


Hi Joe

I hope all is well with you. As a trustee of the BTO, I developed a 'light touch' trustee review process for the Board last year that worked really well. If it would be of interest to you / your subscribers at all, let me know and I'll check if the chair is happy for me to share it.

Best wishes

Submitted by Martin Jervis (not verified) on 6 Jun 2020


Great Post Joe. At the Hospice we evolved a system that (in brief) involved 5 "Knowledgeable others" providing feedback which the the Chair anonymised and synthesised in a feedback session. Seemed to work really well. Glad you're surfacing ALL the aspects in this blog and I approve of the change of heart ;-)

Submitted by Fiona Beddoes-Jones (not verified) on 7 Jun 2020


Hi Joe, great article, thank you. Assessing Trustee performance is actually quite easy - provided that you look at the right things and use the right tools for the job. There are 3 things that you need to focus on: People (quality of relationships), Process (quality of thinking) and outcomes (quality of results and added value). The best way I have found to judge performance against these things is via 360 feedback, making sure that the questions you ask are relevant and related to these 3 areas. Raters should be made up of colleagues, team members, upwards reporting lines and also clients, supply chains and committee members from other organisations if they are willing to become involved (they will if your Trustee has good relationships!) Hope this helps. All best wishes, Fiona

Submitted by roma hooper (not verified) on 10 Jun 2020


Hi, I’ve developed an appraisal form for trustees -interestingly it also provides trustees to give feedback about my role as chair and how I am doing. What is helpful is that it simply acts as a template. It is the conversation which follows from this which is so helpful. Often I can find out why a trustee may not be contributing or whether they feel they aren’t contributing. I do this appraisal once a year or perhaps every other year. My CEOs are also pretty astute about individual trustees performances which can be helpful and insightful. Sometimes difficult because it is actually very difficult to get trustees to leave who aren’t performing! Regards Roma Hooper

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