"Trustees are there to be critical friends of charities." An interview with Leon Ward

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"Trustees are there to be critical friends of charities." An interview with Leon Ward

"Trustees are there to be critical friends of charities." An interview with Leon Ward

Leon Ward first became a Trustee at just 18 years old when he joined the board of Plan International UK. He has gone onto publish or contribute to several young Trustee guides and has spent much of his career convincing boards about how and why they should recruit young Trustees, helping them to implement board models that increase diversity. He is currently Deputy Chair of Brook Young People and is a senior member of the Advisory Board for the Young Trustees Movement. 

When and how did you first become a Trustee? 

11 years ago. My journey was probably slightly different to some people; in that, I was involved in an organisation called Plan International UK as part of their youth advisory panel and young campaigner for them. Just as I was turning 18, they started advertising for new Trustees, and I thought well why not? The only requirements of being a Trustee in this country is that you are 18 years of age and that you're not barred by the Charity Commission from being one. I went through the recruitment process and got appointed. I'm now Deputy Chair at Brook Young People where I've been for just over 6 years.

11 years on, what characteristics would you say make someone a good Trustee? 

I think the starting point is, Trustees are there to be critical friends of charities and I think that's a characteristic that some people struggle to slip into at the early stages of their career. I think people are more comfortable with that when their day job career is developed. I think the second top value or characteristic of a decent Trustee is somebody that is diligent, who does their reading and background research and is able to ask all of the questions that they need to as they go through any area of the business. The third value is recognising that a board is a collegiate group of people working together, you don't operate in isolation as a Trustee, you operate as part of a team supporting the executive. 

Do you have to be able to get on with a group of strangers from different walks of life?

The starting point for this is that you’re all united around one thing, which is that you love the charity. That is a really powerful connecting factor between a group of volunteers, you love the work that they do, you’re interested and committed to it, so yes, you're joining a group of strangers, but that starting place is a really rich position to be in when you then go on to work together around the board. 

Do you think age matters when you are often the youngest person on the board? 

I don’t think it matters. It's about understanding that diverse decision-making is always better. It doesn’t necessarily mean it's easier; sometimes when you bring diverse perspectives, backgrounds and skills around a table it requires a bit more skill to get the best out of those people and I think age is part of the cross-cutting parts of intersectionality. Being young is one thing, but you can be young AND any of the other protected characteristics. Even the non-protected characteristics, you can be young, white, and poor. Class is not a protected characteristic but is still a really interesting dynamic to have in the boardroom in the same way, having someone that is young, white, and rich brings their own perspectives. It's about bringing difference together so that you can best position your organisation to take on the challenges that it's facing externally. 

We are now seeing more diverse and different boardroom line-ups than we had a couple of decades ago. How far is there still to go? 

Diversity is a hot topic at the moment, and it seems to me it's been a hot topic for the last 10 years, but progress is pretty slow across all of these areas. We know that the average age of Trustees is 57. Most of them are white and have university-level education so it's not reflective of the population. When the threshold to being a Trustee is that you are a volunteer first and foremost, why do we have this diversity problem at board level? I think it's because of the attitude we put towards the board, we see it as a playground for people that are pre-retirement or retired and that is not appropriate. The boardroom is a place where everybody can volunteer if they wish to. 

Do you have any specific training to equip you for the role of Trustee? 

Yes, I think the best Trustees and the best board are learning Trustees and learning boards. You join the boardroom knowing what your skillset and areas of expertise are, which means if you're very good at one subject area then there could be ten subject areas that you're not completely skilled at and so you're always learning and receiving training. I have received training in the last six years with Brook around finance management and safeguarding.

Some boards put their Trustees through fundraising training that so that they can understand what it means to fundraise in the current context and to look at the multiple facets of fundraising. Trust and Foundation fundraising is very different to mass participation fundraising. So, if you are somebody that is great at Trust and Foundations, that doesn't necessarily mean you know it all. The two things are different, so you may need training in order to up-skill on those other areas too. 

How challenging should a Trustee be towards a senior team within a charity? If they really have an opposing position on something, how far would you go to put this across to the senior team at that charity? 

I think I would start the other side. Lots of Trustees challenge for challenge’s sake and that’s not helpful to executives, but if you think that a business area requires the attention of the board and it's been brought to you, then you have the right to ask for more information, to challenge perceptions and task the executive with reassessing something if necessary. The main boardroom isn't always the appropriate place to do it, you might think about sub-committee stuff or having a board champion who chaperones the executive through that business area until it's ready to come to the full board, and then obviously you can take challenge as and when it's appropriate. I have come across Trustees who feel so strongly against something, that they have ended up with no other option to resign – normally down to a values clash. I think that is the ultimate test around Trustees’ thinking and feelings on the subject area, but it is rare for that to happen. If you have got a decent reporting line between the executive and the board, you should not be getting that level of disagreement because Trustees should be coming on the journey with you. Executives should be taking Trustees on that journey.  

How much time does being a Trustee take up?

I think you get out as much as you put in.  Every charity is different, but you are probably looking at around 40 hours a year as an average. I sit on a sub-committee so that adds extra time. I am also involved in other things, for example I judge our sexual health awards, which adds another 5-10 hours, it's up to you. 

One thing I would say is if you are thinking of being a Trustee, always ask that question and get them to be upfront and honest about what the realistic time commitment is. For some charities it is very low touch, and for others, it's a lot more intense, so it's hard to give you an average but that's what I spend on my role each year. 

What are the best and worst aspects of the role? 

The best bit is being able to see the charity deliver its mission, and I know that's a pretty safe answer, but what I mean is, Brook is there to help young people feel empowered about their sexual health and relationships and so that is very varied in the terms of what we do. We have done things on period poverty over the last couple of years, we've done things on consent, on the rights of trans people, it is so multifaceted that being able to see us deliver against those objectives is magical. When you see in the boardroom the impact of an idea that has come from the board or executive and has been delivered, there is nothing more rewarding. 

Conversely, the worst bit – especially during COVID-19 – is trying to navigate those challenges and it's no secret the sector has been hit hard. Ultimately it is Trustees that sign off on things like redundancies and investment plans, and no one likes cutting. That is probably the least favourite aspect that I have. You are affecting lives and even if that's around service delivery, if you are cutting services there is somebody that is affected by that and those are the very people you are set up to serve. Sometimes you must make these decisions in the best interests of the charity though and that means making tough calls occasionally, but without a doubt that has got to be the worst part. 

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