As my time as a Trustee for the British Youth Council is coming to an end, I’ve been reflecting on my personal development as a member of the Board.
When I took on the Trustee role at the age of 23, I was full of energy and thought I could handle anything that came my way. But over the past three years, I’ve realised that many of my initial assumptions about what it means to be a good trustee were wrong.
Now, as I get ready to hand over the reins to the next group of young leaders, I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. So here are some of the things I wish I’d known at the beginning of my journey about what it really means to be an effective trustee.
Learn to embrace constructive conflict
It’s remarkably easy for trustee boards to become reverberating echo chambers. As a trustee, it is your duty to venture out into the discomfort of different viewpoints, to invite discordant voices to the table, and to pose those difficult questions that others may shy away from.
Board meetings shouldn’t devolve into a chorus of agreement. Instead, value constructive conflicts and disagreements; they are the heartbeat of a dynamic board. The clash of ideas can ignite insightful dialogue, bring hidden perspectives into the light, and lead to a more robust decision-making process. The most dangerous decision is the one taken with a collective nod of the head.
Become a strategic ally, not just a guardian of governance
Being a trustee is about more than just attending meetings and adhering to governance principles. It’s about making an impact and driving positive change. You are a vital strategic ally to the executive team, an instrumental voice in shaping the charity’s future.
As a trustee, let your gaze extend towards the bigger picture and long term vision of the charity, ensuring each decision taken is aligned with the charity’s strategy. Employ key questions to steer strategic conversations: What are the potential repercussions for our beneficiaries? How does this fit into our mission? Is this really a priority? Is the impact sustainable?
Risk is to be managed, not eliminated
While rigorous risk management is a vital component of any charity, it should not smother innovation. The charities that truly make an impact are those who walk the tightrope of caution and calculated audacity. As a trustee, it’s your responsibility to promote such a balance.
Rather than striving to abolish uncertainty, develop the skills to differentiate between opportunity and danger. This may involve making decisions when the full picture hasn’t yet been painted, or grappling with sudden curveballs. Welcome new strategies that, despite carrying a level of risk, have the potential to propel the charity’s mission forward. They’re often the stepping stone to innovative breakthroughs and significant social impact.
Uphold excellence and avoid sacred cows
In the charity sector, complacency can often set in. With the inherent goodness of a charity’s cause, it’s easy to presume a positive impact. As a trustee, it’s your mission to defy this trend, fostering a culture of rigorous evaluation and uncompromising standards. This includes challenging the ‘sacred cows’—those seemingly untouchable assumptions or time-worn practices that often go undiscussed.
Advocate for scrutiny of all charitable activities and demand tangible proof of impact. Ensure that every facet of the charity’s work, no matter how esteemed, remains open to challenge and improvement. This tireless pursuit of excellence will support the charity in enhancing its effectiveness and truly delivering on its mission.
Your youth is your competitive advantage
As a young trustee, you possess a unique and powerful asset that can truly set you apart: your youth. Embrace it wholeheartedly and recognise that your age can be a competitive advantage if utilised correctly. Throughout my term as a trustee, I’ve discovered that young voices bring fresh perspectives, boundless energy, and a deep understanding of the challenges faced by today’s young people.
At times, you might find yourself in rooms where experience is perceived as the primary determinant of value. Embrace the discomfort of being the youngest in the room, and remember that your youth is not a limitation but a source of strength. Your unique perspective on current issues and the digital world can breathe new life into discussions. Embrace the power of being a bridge between generations – you are in an unrivalled position to connect with fellow trustees, staff, and, most importantly, young people.