I’m still mourning the loss of my Young Person’s Railcard, but there are a few things that help me keep a hold of my youth. Were I American and so inclined, I could still be a Young Republican up until the age of 40. Reassuringly, I can join the Young Men’s Christian Association no matter how old I get, and being male or Christian doesn’t matter either. Best of all, as trustee of social enterprise Mindapples, I can take huge comfort from also being a Young Trustee.
I’ve gained a huge amount personally from this position, and it is disappointing that charities not only have a shortage of trustees but especially struggle to engage young trustees. Research by the Charity Commission found that only 0.5 percent of charity trustees were 18-24 year olds in 2010 and the average age of a trustee is around 57 years old. So it’s no surprise that Trustees’ Week this year is emphasising the benefits and skills young people can bring to a charity board.
The chance to develop your CV, get experience of decision making at a level way beyond your experience, and make a real social impact – to my mind there is little better a young person can do than become a trustee. Indeed, when Young Charity Trustees surveyed 200 under 35 year-olds last year, they found that 85 percent would consider becoming a trustee. For those that want to get involved in giving to charities but don’t know where to start, making the time to contribute as a charity trustee can give them a valuable insight and understanding of how charities work.
What I have spent time wondering about, however, is what the charity or social enterprise get out of having a young trustee?
What they don’t necessarily get is knowledge of technology and social media. Just because I am under 30 does not mean I am an internet whizz. At Mindapples our founder is a technical whizz, so this wasn’t what they were recruiting for. This isn’t to say young people won’t be able to contribute when it comes to social media or other digital innovations, simply that pigeon-holing them as the ‘tech person’ isn’t going to draw out their best.
Organizations also won’t get a ‘wise old owl’. Young trustees need more time to understand the organization, to feel confident to contribute and to appreciate the pressures on the organization. They are less likely to have seen it and done it before.
Rather than a drawback, I think this is where charities benefit most from young trustees. Many charities have the great and the good on their board, but this can often mean those trustees are very busy, may be juggling commitments to several organizations and hence don’t always follow up on actions, ask questions, make suggestions or have time to really commit. In comparison, young trustees are likely to be hungrier to learn and hungrier to make a difference. When supported to feel confident, they may also ask the questions others won’t.
So why don’t more charities actively recruit young trustees?
The preconception that young people will have less relevant experience is often a mistaken one. The (young) co-Chair at Pilotlight partner charity Her Centre told me recently that while interviewing a CFO of a major retailer, she found she was the one with the greater board experience.
Yet, when it comes to it, how old you are doesn’t really matter, nor how much experience you have. A young person with the right experience, knowledge or skills will be a much better trustee than the older one without them.
Charities need a diversity of experience, and diversity of attitudes. The value of young trustees is potentially no bigger than that of older ones, but what they are likely to bring is the right attitude and a fresh perspective. When it comes to small charities with little resource, this can make all the difference.
Robbie Cowbury is a project manager at Pilotlight and a trustee of social enterprise Mindapples.