Fun fact - those people sitting around the board room table, acting as trustees for our community organisations, they're volunteers too!
It's something that is often forgotten and, not only are they volunteers, but they're kind of important ones, aren't they? They take on the responsibility and liability on behalf of organisations, they have a huge impact on the strategic direction of the organisation, and can be the line between the survival or destruction of an organisation.
As with all volunteers engaged by us, we need to make sure that we apply the same best volunteer management practices to our trustees as we would any other volunteer if we want them to stay, learn, thrive, and be effective in their contributions to our organisations. This is not a situation where normal human resources type approaches will work because volunteers simply aren't accountable in the same way as paid employees and they can (and will!) simply walk away or disengage.
So what do we do?
As with any volunteer role, it is crucial that the right person is recruited and this applies to trustees as well. A well thought out and well written role description will help you articulate exactly what you're looking for and the time that will be required, and will help potential trustees self-screen.
Do you have role descriptions for your trustees? Is it clear and realistic? Do you go through it with any new trustee to make sure they fully understand the role and have the chance to ask questions? If you answered NO to any of these questions, perhaps now is the time to go back and have a look and put some processes in place.
An essential part of any volunteer management programme is induction. This is the prime time to go through role descriptions, volunteer agreements, and expectations. It's also a great time to introduce your new volunteer trustee to staff and other board members, give an overview of your organisation, and explain how their contribution will help the aims of the organisation.
Often when we talk about diversity, most people's brains go directly to ethnic diversity which is just one facet of diverse thinking. Having some diversity among volunteers can help keep a volunteer programme alive, introduce new perspectives, and help to more accurately reflect the diversity of your clients and service users. The same goes for trustees! There are a number of studies that have shown that a diverse board is an effective board.
Where do you recruit your trustees? If you want to increase the ethnic diversity of your board, you might want to consider spreading the word through organisations that support refugees and migrant, for example. They often bring an incredible range of skills and perspectives. You could also try looking at the people who engage with your organisation as possible trustees.
Training & Development:
Training should be part of every volunteer role. Firstly this will help to ensure that volunteers are carrying out tasks that are in line with your organisation's policies and procedures. Secondly it is a great way of keeping them engaged and enthusiastic during their time with your organisation.
How many of your trustees have had any training on how to be good board members? Is there a budget for board training? Do you proactively encourage board members to attend training?
Just as should happening with paid staff, regular performance reviews of volunteers are a good way to review whether a volunteer's motivation and expectations are being met. It's also a helpful way to identify any ways in which you can help to support a volunteer's learning. Most importantly, it gives you a chance to recognise that volunteer's contribution and skills and extend a thank you.
Annual board appraisals are just as important! These should be an honest evaluation of performance with peer feedback, rather just a box-ticking exercise.
Ending the Relationship:
It can be tricky ending a relationship with a volunteer, especially if you need to end it earlier than expected. However, it is crucial that we have the courage to ask a volunteer who is not delivering their role, who has become stagnant, or who is presenting other challenges like difficult behaviour, to leave the organisation.
The same goes for trustees.
Do you have clear terms of office for your trustees or are they permitted to just keep rolling on year after year, for decades?
Do you feel able to end the relationship early if needed or are you held hostage?
Exit interviews are a great way to find out what went well and what didn't go well for a trustee during their time with an organisation, but critical feedback can be difficult to give and to take, so only do these exit interviews if you are going to be prepared to act on any feedback you receive.
Trustees are an essential part of an organisation achieving its mission and, quite frankly, probably our most important volunteers. Ironically though, we don't appear to spend much time at all thinking about the fact that they are volunteers and how to manage them as such. If we want our organisations to have the best possible impact on our communities and the causes we are championing, then we must make sure that we provide trustees with the best possible support that recognises that fundamentally, they are volunteers.