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12 June 2019

Time for change?

In conversation with someone who used to run one of Scotland’s largest housing associations, he recounted the time he had argued against a proposal by some of his Board members to introduce payments for certain non-executive roles. He won the argument - but only just (his resignation letter was in the desk). It’s a measure of how strongly some feel about this issue. I’ve always sided with my housing association friend but having read a recent blog on the matter by Julia Unwin who has just completed her work on Civil Society Futures, I’m not so sure.


 

By Julia Unwin

VOLUNTARY TRUSTEES – ARE WE PAYING A PRICE FOR THIS PRINCIPLE?


Every few years a minor argument breaks out in civil society about whether or not we should allow trustees to be paid. Every few years, someone laments the fact that it’s hard to attract people to trustee roles and every few years someone else says that public trust is helped by voluntary trusteeship, that the voluntary principle is at the heart of who we are and that it would make no difference to the number and quality of trustees anyway. And at some stage we point smugly at the FTSE companies and the NHS trusts that do pay, and tell ourselves that they don’t have inclusive boards either.


And every few years after the row subsides again, I’m left feeling deeply uncomfortable. Partly because I know how hugely I have personally benefited from being a trustee. (I will always treasure the memory of a Very Important Person in the charity world portentously reminding me that no-one should ever benefit from their trust, while I reflect on the personal, professional and generally life enhancing benefits I have received from trusteeship).


But also because the voices of those saying that payment for trusteeship is wrong nearly always come from people who are already trustees. It’s a bit like those people who have already easily negotiated the rickety stairs and narrow doors of a meeting room describing the room as absolutely accessible. Those of us lucky enough to have salaried roles which allow time for trusteeship, or those who earn enough to enable them to give their time, need to be very cautious about advocating a model that may not always work for everyone.


I’m interested in hearing from someone on very insecure earnings, who loses pay every time she goes to a trustee meeting. And yes, advocating for time off (as NCVO does), is important, but it only seems to apply for those in secure, salaried work. I’m interested in hearing from the many people I have met who wanted to join a housing association board but knew that it might imperil their benefit payments because they were no longer deemed available for work. I’d like to hear from young people, scrabbling to piece together an income in really difficult times who would like to take on a role – and are so desperately needed by charity boards – but cannot risk the possibility that they thereby miss out on a shift or a freelance contract that takes them out of town.


I’m not comfortable with a debate that doesn’t ask the views of people who are currently not sitting round the trustee table.


Are we content for our trustee boards to be staffed by people who are either salaried, or on a final salary pension schemes or who otherwise have sufficient income to allow them to make what is in effect a substantial donation to their charity of choice? It’s also worth remembering that many of the same arguments were used to justify MPs not being paid, a stance which ensured that people were only represented by ‘men of means.’


Now I actually believe that on balance there are really strong – indeed compelling – arguments for keeping trusteeship voluntary. Theoretically, it allows trustees to demonstrate some necessary independence, knowing that their income is not on the line if they present a dissenting view. Non-payment of trustees is still a distinguishing feature of the sector, which recognises the voluntary impulse at the heart of voluntary action. It’s important that people who can afford to, can give back in this way. What is more, for the largest charities which don’t seem to have any challenge recruiting trustees, it’s simply not necessary. And of course the vast majority of charities are not paying anyone anyway. Some would also point out that payment of trustees is a poor use of charitable money, (although if you think good governance is central to the success of the charity it seems odd that this is the one thing we can’t justify paying.)


But we should recognise that all of this does come at a cost. It does restrict the pool of people who can afford to do it. And the price we pay as a sector may be having governing bodies which are less inclusive than they might be. That’s quite a price.


But if we are going to reaffirm, yet again, the voluntary principle, then there are things we ought to do much more seriously. We ought to be much more explicit and much less embarrassed about the benefits received from trusteeship. How about recognised professional accreditation? We ought to be much more open about payment for loss of earnings. (And I don’t mean barristers having their fees reimbursed. I do mean the barista having her wages replaced). We definitely ought to be arguing forcibly for time off, but in an increasingly freelance economy perhaps we ought to also be asking for tax relief on time given.


And perhaps we need to think more about the future pool of trustees. As the ‘job for life’ disappears, we cannot expect employers to continue to release people for trustee duties as part of their development programmes not because they can’t but because they won’t have the same investment. And as the last generation of recipients of final salary pension schemes hang up their trustee boots, and as demands on trustees get ever greater, are there new and better ways of making sure that a charity set up today will be able to recruit a diverse, knowledgeable, supportive group of people to steer the next generation of charities?


Just arguing that non-payment of trustees is a system that has served us well for the last century may not be the best possible answer for the next one.


 

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