What it means to be a charity trustee

Matt Plen Matt Plen

I’ve been a volunteer most of my adult life. As a teenager I got deeply involved in a Jewish youth group and threw myself into planning and running educational programmes before serving on the organisation’s national committee, editing its newsletter, staffing seminars and setting up and running its first ever summer camp.

In adult life this has continued to be important to me: I volunteer regularly, leading services and teaching at my local synagogue and, when my son started school, I volunteered as a class rep on the PTA.

I’m also involved in an organisation called Citizens UK, the country’s largest broad-based community organising network which brings together churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, students unions and more to work on grass-roots driven campaigns on issues like the Living Wage, housing, mental heath provision and refugee rights.

One of the most important lessons of community organising is that people are motivated not by principles but by broad self interest. This does not mean selfishness – it means we are driven by issues that genuinely touch our lives. No wonder so many cancer survivors are involved with cancer charities, parents of young people affected by violence campaign against knife crime, and members of the Jewish community, most of whose ancestors were immigrants, care passionately about refugee issues. It certainly applies to me: my volunteering has been driven by my passion for education, my commitment to my religious tradition, and concern for my children’s wellbeing.

But recently my volunteering has taken a different turn. Over the last few years, I’ve had the privilege to serve as a trustee of London Citizens (the precursor to Citizens UK) and, most recently, as a trustee of TimeBank. Being a trustee or non-executive board member feels very different from regular volunteering. It’s not about mucking in and getting your hands dirty and it’s not about a front-line role or directly pushing forward the projects you’re involved with. That’s what professional staff (and other volunteers) are for.

But I’ve come to realise that being a trustee can be deeply satisfying. It allows me to use the skills and experience I’ve developed in my professional life as a charity chief executive and bring them to bear for the benefit of another organisation. I recently heard a charity leader complaining that he couldn’t find anyone to take on the role of treasurer within his organisation because several finance professionals he knew, while keen to get involved, didn’t want to spend their free time doing the same thing they do at work. I feel the opposite: there’s nothing more satisfying than using my professional skills to support something I believe in – and I’m sure that if I worked in the private sector the opportunity to serve as a trustee would be even more meaningful to me.

At the same time, being a trustee is a wonderful contrast to the pressures of a day job. It’s a privilege to be able to engage with amazing professionals who are driving change and bringing benefit to thousands of people, and to support them by taking a step back, asking the right questions, and being a critical friend. It’s something I would enthusiastically recommend.

If Matt’s blog has inspired you to become a charity trustee, why not join us at TimeBank and help us build our volunteer projects that tackle some of the most complex social issues in our society.Take a look here for more information.

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