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Unleashing the power of diversity

From early years provision and young people’s mental health services through to bridges into employment and action on climate change, charities have long provided a wide range of services that are important to young people. But until recently, that was all the involvement young people had. They were seen as beneficiaries of charity, but not the agents of charitable action.

As a result, the Boards of non-profits, with the exception of a few whose focus was itself one of youth empowerment, have been dominated by older people. Whether it was because these were the people with time on their hands, or whether this was the expectation that you needed decades of experience to play the role, the charity sector was at risk of being caught out of step with one of the most powerful societal changes of the twenty-first century which is youth participation.

According to the Young Trustees Movement, only three per cent of trustees are under thirty years old. Their goal, shared now by a growing number of bodies, is to widen the diversity and balance of charities, starting at the top through promoting the scope for young people to become trustees.

In this article, we delve into the pivotal role of young trustees and explore why diversity, particularly in age representation, matters for the future of charitable organisations.

The changing face of charity governance

Historically, charity boards have often been perceived as the domain of older, more experienced individuals. However, the realisation that diverse perspectives fuel innovation and foster adaptability has sparked a movement to diversify trustee boards, including an emphasis on age diversity.

This is not about paying lip service to young people. It is about recognising that they may bring expertise and insight that is essential to the success of what the charity is trying to achieve.

Of course, there is a long and proud history of championing the voice of young people. In Scotland, activists started to explore how to do this from the early 1990s in the context of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. One result was the formation of the Scottish Youth Parliament, which opened on 30 June 1999, one day before the official Scottish Parliament itself commenced, under the new devolution legislation.

What has added to this in more recent years is growing evidence of the benefits of youth participation. One ground-breaking project was on young people’s mental health, where NHS services were stretched to breaking point and young people themselves largely excluded from the decisions made about scarce resources and delivery models. Mental health conditions affect about 1 in 10 children and young people. 75% of mental health problems in adult life, excluding dementia, start before age eighteen. Run by the participation charity Involve, what emerged from their initiative was how powerful it is to design mechanisms to place the experience and perspectives of young people at the heart of services that are designed to benefit other young people.

The result is that, slowly but rightly, young trustees—individuals typically under the age of 30—are taking up leadership roles, injecting vitality and a contemporary outlook into the governance structures of charitable organisations.

It is easy to generalise, of course, but to take a positive view on the difference that young trustees can make, here are some of the key potential benefits:

Fresh perspectives and innovation

Young trustees bring a wealth of fresh perspectives to the boardroom. Raised in an era of rapid technological advancements and shifting societal norms, they offer insights into emerging trends and innovative solutions that may escape their more seasoned counterparts. This injection of new ideas and creative thinking can be a catalyst for innovation within charitable organisations, ensuring they remain dynamic and responsive to evolving challenges.

Representation of diverse demographics

Charities often serve diverse communities, and it's crucial that their governance structures reflect this diversity. Young trustees, by virtue of their age, inherently represent a demographic that may be under-represented on traditional trustee boards. Their inclusion helps ensure that decision-making processes consider the needs, preferences, and perspectives of younger individuals, fostering a more inclusive and representative governance model.

Digital literacy and technological fluency

In an increasingly digitised world, the ability to navigate and harness technology is a valuable asset. Young trustees, having grown up in the age of the internet and digital connectivity, possess a natural fluency with technology. This proficiency is an asset for charities seeking to leverage digital tools for outreach, fundraising, and programme delivery, ensuring they remain relevant and effective in a tech-driven landscape.

Community engagement and grassroots connection

Young trustees often have a strong connection to grassroots communities and are adept at engaging with diverse groups of individuals. This community-centric approach is invaluable for charities working to address social issues at the local level. Young trustees can act as bridges between the organisation and the communities they serve, fostering trust and facilitating more impactful interventions.

Succession planning and long-term sustainability

The inclusion of young trustees is a strategic move for the long-term sustainability of charitable organisations. As more seasoned trustees retire or step down, having a pipeline of young leaders ready to step into leadership roles can help to ensure a seamless transition. This succession planning is vital for the charity sector as a whole in terms of organisational continuity and effectiveness.

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Why diversity matters

Informed decision-making

A diverse board ensures a richer pool of perspectives, which, in turn, leads to more informed decision-making. When individuals with varied backgrounds, experiences, and ages collaborate, the resulting decisions are more likely to be comprehensive and reflective of the diverse needs of the community the charity serves.

Increased innovation and creativity

Homogeneous boards may inadvertently lead to groupthink, hindering the emergence of innovative ideas. Diversity, including age diversity with the inclusion of young trustees, stimulates creativity by introducing alternative viewpoints and challenging established norms. This diversity-driven creativity is all the more important for charities seeking to address complex and evolving social challenges.

Improved accountability and governance

A diverse board enhances accountability by providing a system of checks and balances. Young trustees, with their different perspectives and expectations, contribute to a governance framework that scrutinises decisions and actions from multiple angles. This scrutiny leads to improved governance practices and a higher level of transparency.

Enhanced relevance to stakeholders

Charities serve diverse groups of stakeholders, including beneficiaries, donors, and the wider community. A board that reflects this diversity is more attuned to the needs and expectations of these stakeholders. Young trustees, being part of the demographic that often engages with charities as beneficiaries or donors, bring firsthand insights that enhance the organisation's relevance and resonance.

Catalyst for social change

Charities are at the forefront of driving social change. Embracing diversity, including the inclusion of young trustees, aligns with the ethos of creating a more equitable and inclusive society. Young trustees, often with a passion for social justice and a commitment to positive change, can serve as catalysts for pushing the organisation toward more impactful and progressive initiatives.

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Case studies

Let's explore a couple of case studies that illustrate the positive impact of young trustees on charitable organisations.

Overseas development charity

Plan International UK is a development charity that has been a pioneer of fundraising through child sponsorship. It operates with two Youth Observers on the Board of Trustees, who can advise but cannot vote, and one young trustee who has full voting powers. One trustee brought on in this way was Olivia Beecham in 2016, who has been a member of the board ever since. She is currently an associate with On Purpose, a leadership programme for mid-career professionals working in the social and environmental impact space.

Sexual health charity

Brook is a charity providing sexual health services for people under the age of 25. The charity reserves two places for 18 – 24 year olds, with the role lasting for between one and two years. One trustee appointed through this is Charlotte, who comments that “I had just finished my time as a welfare officer at Leeds university union, where I ran campaigns on student health and sexual health. I felt that Brook shared the values that I was trying to achieve in my campaigns.” She encourages others to step forward too: “It's a great opportunity to have your voice heard and be a part of something that really makes a difference to young people's lives.”

There are still obstacles and no doubt prejudices around the scope for young people as trustees. In England and Wales, for example, if your legal model as a charity is that of a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO), you can appoint trustees over the age of 16. If you are a community benefit or a co-operative society, again, you can have Board members from the age of 16. But for any other charitable entity, the minimum age is 18.

But there are signs of change. In 2010, the Charity Commission found that of over 810,000 trustees in England and Wales, only 4,220 were under 24. While they may not always find a place, young people are stepping forward to become trustees.

If this change continues, the infusion of young trustees into the governance structures of charitable organisations can mark a positive shift toward a more inclusive, dynamic, and effective sector. The diversity they bring —be it in terms of age, experiences, or perspectives— is a catalyst for innovation, relevance, and long-term sustainability.

Embracing the power of diversity, particularly through the inclusion of young trustees, is not just a progressive move; it is a step towards a more equitable and impactful future for charitable organisations.

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Amplify your impact

If you're interested in taking up a trustee role but want to learn more about charities first, or your charity that wants to develop its governance, Pilotlight could help. We amplify the impact charities, business and individuals can bring to make a better world. Our programmes see business experts share their expertise with charities, bringing new perspectives and learning for both sides, to help charities thrive.

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