Trust: confidence, belief, faith, freedom from suspicion & doubt, sureness, certainty, certitude, assurance, conviction, credence, reliance, responsibility, duty, obligation, safe-keeping, keeping, protection, charge, care, custody; trusteeship, guardianship.

In a recent Life Scientific Jim Al-khalili was in conversation with Allie Macadam, renowned engineer. In the programme Macadam was in part talking about diversity, or lack of diversity, within the engineering sector, and what part unconscious bias plays in recruitment decision making. She went on to say how we need to be aware of our unconscious bias to ensure diversity increases.  Obviously the issues associated with unconscious bias extend far beyond engineering, playing out across the whole of society on an everyday basis.

There are currently over 165,000 registered charities in the uk with 700,000 trustees sitting on their boards (1). Charities will have a Chief Executive Officer or equivalent, but it is the trustees who direct and hold the charities’ activities in line with its registered purpose. Trustees are also in charge of the financial stability and proper accounting of the charity, in addition to numerous other responsibilities including terms of employment for staff. The trustee role in the charity sector is always unpaid, so trustees are effectively volunteers who give up their time to support the aims of a charity they believe in and want to practically support.

Currently two thirds of trustees are male, have an average age between 55 – 64 with only 8% from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds (2). These statistics show how charity boards are unrepresentative of the population as a whole. If board members come from similar educational, class, ethnic and/or professional backgrounds the danger is of ‘groupthink’ referred to in 2017 Arts Council How to Create Diverse Boards – Culture Change Guide.

“A diverse board is able to make decisions more effectively by reducing the risk of ‘groupthink’. Board members are responsible for devising or agreeing strategies through critical appraisal and effective problem solving. A challenge in the decision- making process, within the boardroom, is ‘groupthink’ – the psychological behaviour of minimising conflicts and reaching a consensus decision. Including the contributions of people with different skills, backgrounds and experiences creates solutions to problems from a greater range of perspectives”(3).

So why is the trustee demographic so limited? It is perhaps attributable in part to the historical (but still prevalent) process of ‘recruiting trustees on the basis of existing influence, contacts or wealth which predicates against a more diverse range of trustees’ (4). It may also be due to personal experience; if no-one in a family, friendship or colleague group had ever been a trustee what would prompt an individual to consider or aspire to such a position? Perhaps witnessing the media attention on trustees (who are legally responsible for the charities activities including safeguarding) when alleged serious wrong-doings are highlighted is off putting to prospective candidates. Having spare time to make a regular unpaid commitment to a charity, holding that charity and steering it through both challenging and thriving times proactively is not something everyone can do. Many trustee meetings happen in the evenings, when people may have caring responsibilities or work commitments rendering attendance at meetings difficult. These are all possible barriers and yet there is a new agenda promoting diversity on boards, across both charity and corporate sectors as government undertakes reviews and sets targets.

It was a talk by Prue Skene on the first Clore Leadership residential, where she detailed her experience of working on and developing charity boards, that really brought the idea of joining a board to mind. As part of my Clore fellowship development programme I decided to enrol on the Cause4 Trustee Leadership course, to provide a solid base on which to develop an understanding of the role of trustee and to hear about experiences of people who are currently trustees. Bearing in mind that seeking a position on an arts based charity might bring about a conflict of interest (trustees can not financially benefit from the charity) I am using the course to learn and think about both what kind of charity I would like to give time to.  More widely I am considering what artists could bring to charity boards of all kinds and what our skill set may be.

It can be difficult to appraise skills when they don’t fit neatly into roles or easily identifiable subjects such as finance, human resources or marketing but artists are multi-skilled professionals. Many artists’ activities are focused on seeking opportunities, locating grants and and writing applications, managing budgets, working with diverse participants and audiences. They also know what it is like to live on low incomes whilst navigating a complex benefits system with the unpredictability of paid work. We may have knowledge and prior experience of working with the charity beneficiaries, or may be a former beneficiary ourselves; either way it allows us to bring valuable insights to boards. Artists lead their own work, and to a large extent their own careers, so we regularly question and critically reflect in order to develop and move forward. For some, challenging accepted ways of working and holding those in authority accountable is a vital focus of their practice. These useful and transferable skills in the artist’s toolkit could make us very valuable assets to charity boards of all kinds.

And what can we gain? We have the opportunity to contribute to something outside of our own creative practice, making a positive difference in the charity sector.  We gain new skills from training and peer learning, develop a greater understanding of the challenges charities face, informing the way we interact with the charities we collaborate with or are contracted by in our paid work. The exchange of time for experience isn’t one that everyone can make, but if artists can find their way onto boards our professional reach and influence grows, which can only be of benefit to our sector and wider society as we promote new ideas and ways of working informed by creative practice.


  1. Cause4 Trustee Leadership Course 15 Feb 2018
  2. Taken on Trust The awareness and effectiveness of charity trustees in England and Wales November 2017
  3. How to create diverse boards – Culture Change Guide 2017 p.2
  4. ibid



Charity Commission – Trustee Role and Board

Trustee Bank – details of trustee vacancies