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Cause & Effect: Penny Wilson
Cause & Effect: Penny Wilson

Penny Wilson is CEO of Getting on Board, a charity which supports other charities to recruit and retain a diverse range of trustees. Previously she has worked for the Charity Retail Association, Barnet Voluntary Service Council, Cambridge University, the Brilliant Club and Stylability.

The way trustees are recruited gives us a chronic diversity issue. The most common way of becoming a trustee is by being asked. The lack of diversity this creates isn’t a minority issue, where a minority of society is excluded from charity boards. Actually, it’s a huge majority issue where most adult members of our society, either don’t know about trusteeship or think it isn’t for people like them. It’s a real own goal for the charity sector that we’re not accessing all of these brilliant people.

Trustees are often seen just as a necessary evil. Trustees are our most senior leaders. They’re setting the direction for the organisation and we don’t treat them with very much care and attention. Generally, there is no budget for trustee development, for example. In fact, trustee development needn’t be very expensive. But I think it’s an indicator that for many organisations, trustees are a necessary evil.

It’s worrying when staff are all-powerful. In many organisations, the staff are running the show, and calling all the shots. That has to be wrong. The trustees ought to be holding the staff to account, asking difficult questions and motivating and inspiring and taking care, fulfilling their duty of care to the staff. That’s when it works well.

This is my best tip for other small charity CEOs. Join the Small Charity CEOs Facebook group. On there are several thousand small charity CEOs, all in the same boat, all asking each other, how the hell do I do this thing? And it’s an incredibly supportive peer community. We’re all quite humble and we’re a bit panicky and flappy, and we get help from each other.

I am at the mercy of the never ending, hideously diverse, to-do list. My to-do list mixes the very strategic with the timely operational, and everything in between. I need to be good at finance. I need to be good at HR. I need to be good at marketing. I need to be good at public speaking. I need to be good at all of these things, and I need expertise in what my charity does. So you are thinly spread and you are a jack of all trades. Which is also of course the best thing about being a small charity CEO. It’s both the most challenging and also the most exciting.

I’m not at all afraid to ask for help. I’m always asking for help, on LinkedIn and elsewhere. And 95% of the time, some kind person will offer the very help we need. I changed my mindset by remembering that I’m asking for help for the charity, not asking for help for me. People like to help actually. They enjoy seeing that, because we’re small, their hour of help might actually make a really massive difference to what we’re doing.

If only I’d known to be more ballsy. When I started at Getting on Board, I was very softly, softly, careful, careful. Now we shout much more loudly about the lack of diversity on trustee boards. Occasionally someone might not like that. And that’s fine. Most of the time people are right behind us. So I wish I’d been more ballsy, having more confidence about that right from the off. If I’d have told myself that a few years ago, perhaps we’d have got there quicker.

Resources from Getting on Board:
Guide on trustee recruitment. with downloadable resources
Guide to becoming a trustee

Cause & Effect is a series from Hope, in which leading figures who have been involved in building and promoting good causes tell us what they’ve learned from their experiences. Interview by Michael Isaacs.


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