Trustees are Volunteers Too!

Nina Arwitz is CEO of Volunteer Ireland. In advance of Charity Trustees Week, she reminds us that trustees are volunteers too and that we should apply principles of good volunteer management to our vital board members.

Charity trustees are volunteers too. In our experience that’s something that many of us often forget. And not only are they volunteers, but they are pretty important ones – they take on a huge responsibility on behalf of an organisation, they can have a very significant impact on the direction and even survival of an organisation, and they can do a lot of harm as well.

Just like all volunteers, we need to apply good volunteer management practices if we want trustees to stay, thrive and make an effective contribution to our organisation. And you can’t just apply normal “human resources” approaches to volunteers, because they cannot be held accountable in the same way as employees and they can simply walk away or disengage.

So what does that mean? Here’s a list of six key principles of good volunteer management, and what they mean when applied to charity trustees:

Recruitment: You need to make sure you recruit the right person for a volunteer role, and this goes for trustees too. A role description helps you articulate and think through what you’re looking for and the time required – and it can aid with self-screening by the potential trustee. Do you have a role description for your trustees? If so – answer honestly – is it clear and realistic? Do you go through it with new trustees to ensure they understand their role?

Diversity: Diversity among volunteers keeps a volunteer programme alive, brings new perspectives to an organisation, and helps you reflect your beneficiaries. The same goes for trustees, of course – countless studies have demonstrated that a more diverse board is a more effective board. Where do you recruit your trustees? For example, if you want to increase the ethnic diversity of your board you might want to consider spreading the word by an organisation that supports refugees and asylum seekers – who often bring vast skills and new perspectives. You should also look to your organisation’s beneficiaries for possible trustees.

Induction: A good induction is essential to volunteer management. In that induction you should go through a role description or volunteer agreement, clearly articulating what is expected of the volunteer. It’s also good to introduce the volunteer to staff and the fellow board members, and give an overview of the organisation and how their volunteering will contribute to the aim of the organisation. What kind of induction do you provide for trustees?

Training and Development: Training of some form should be part of every volunteer role. Firstly this helps ensure that volunteers are carrying out duties in line with policy and procedures. Secondly it is a way of keeping them engaged and enthusiastic during their time with the organisation. How many of your trustees have been trained at being good board members? Do you provide a budget for board training? Do you proactively encourage board members to attend training?

Performance Appraisal: Regular performance reviews of volunteers are a good way to review if the volunteer’s motivation and expectations are being met. It can also be a helpful way to identify ways you can continue to support a volunteer’s learning. Perhaps most importantly, it allows you to recognise the volunteer’s contributions and skills and say thank you. Annual board appraisals are equally important, as outlined in the Governance Code (A Code of Practice for Good Governance of Community, Voluntary and Charitable Organisations in Ireland; governancecode.ie). It is important that board appraisals are an honest evaluation of performance with peer feedback, rather than a box-ticking exercise.

Ending the relationship: Ending a relationship with a volunteer, especially ending it earlier than one party had expected, can be tricky. But it’s critical to have the courage to ask a volunteer who is not delivering their role, who has become stagnant, or who is presenting other challenges such as difficult behaviours, to leave. The same goes for trustees: do you have clear terms of office for your trustees, and do you feel able to end the relationship early if needed? Exit interviews are a good 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 take – so only do them if you are going to act on them.

Trustees are critical to an organisation achieving its mission, and probably our most important volunteers. Ironically though, we don’t spend much time at all thinking about the fact that they are volunteers and how to manage them as such. If we want our organisation to have the best possible impact on the cause we are fighting for, then we must ensure that we provide trustees with the best possible support that recognises that fundamentally, they are volunteers.

If you want to get better at managing your trustees as volunteers, check out Volunteer Ireland’s training calendar. We have a suite of courses in volunteer management that you might find useful: https://www.volunteer.ie/services/training-for-vios/.

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