The real issue isn't about paying trustees but of funding the volunteering infrastructure

Helen Walker

I attended the All Party Parliamentary Group for Charities and Volunteering yesterday – the first of the new Parliament. It focussed on what next for Charity Governance so I invited TimeBank’s new Chair, Peter Beeby, to join me.

Governance is an age old issue thrust once more into the spotlight by the seemingly never ending fall out from Kids Company – having been to see Committee, the musical based around the select committee inquiry into Kids Company, I’m not going to lie – I was a tad disappointed that no one burst into song!!

On a serious point as Peter and I left we discussed what we could bring to our organisation – a starting point being to compare our existing strong processes with  the Codes of Governance highlighted by Rosie Chapman at the APPG.  It set me thinking about Governance and trustees and the current debates around volunteers. 

The irony is not lost on me that part of the discussion at the APPG was about whether  trustees should be paid.  Ironic because as a volunteering charity we are constantly standing up for the purity of volunteering and arguing that volunteers should not replace paid roles to plug public sector cuts and now we are suggesting paying volunteer trustees  would solve all our sector’s problems! I am intrigued to understand why paying someone makes them a more dedicated trustee – if you look to our commercial counterparts there are both good and bad non-executive directors who get paid – would we have had the banking crisis if some of them had been better? Does that mean we should just have paid them more? Or is it simply that we should have monitored and supported them to do their job better, ask the right questions and challenge those leading their organisations?

Paying someone won’t necessarily make them better or more committed – most people who volunteer to be a trustee do so because of a passion for the cause, a desire to understand what it’s like to sit on a Board or even improve their own job prospects. They don’t do it in the expectation of payment and I don’t think we would suddenly get better trustees if we paid them. We’d just get more, less dedicated to the cause.

I do think though the culture of not claiming expenses which is prevalent across many Boards should be addressed so we don’t exclude people. No one should have to pay to volunteer and the old school attitude that it’s your donation to the charity is outdated. And if you really want to donate it to the charity – claim your expenses and donate them back with Gift Aid and we all win!

Which brings me to diversity. There was a very strong argument for diversity on Boards and bringing in young trustees. I absolutely agree with this and the importance of different voices, but as a Chief Executive with a Board who all work full time I sometimes want more time from them, which I can’t have in working hours. So are we in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water by sneering at the traditional “male, pale and stale” model of retired professionals? We should value their skills and knowledge, their expertise and more importantly the time they have available. We could, as one person suggested, invite them to mentor the future generation of trustees – not only on their own Boards but beyond.  

Retention was the other big discussion point. How do we keep and enthuse our trustees and bring diverse people together? My question on this is two-fold: What about those you don’t want to retain who’ve been a trustee for ever and hold back the charity with their ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mindset? A simple solution is to have defined maximum periods on the Board. At TimeBank our trustees commit to three years and an option for another three – of course when you have someone who you want to go that’s fine, but when there is someone you like and value it’s harder to wave goodbye – so shouldn’t we be capturing these people and asking them to mentor and support new trustees coming onto our boards?

Maybe as a national volunteering charity specialising in mentoring TimeBank should look at this – but then who would pay for the administration? And that’s the real point. It’s not the volunteers who need paying, it’s the infrastructure around them that needs to be supported. That is something that successive Governments have failed to address since they embraced the ‘Big Society’ and simultaneously cut the budgets of the volunteering infrastructure organisations meant to deliver it.  

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