Becoming a better board member

Bruce McCombie
19 February 2020

Over my time at Pilotlight, I’ve worked with all kinds of charity boards — the good, bad and even the ugly. I’ve also had the delight in seeing many of our Pilotlighters go from working with a charity for the first time, to being inspired enough to become a trustee after participating in one our programmes. With over eight years at Pilotlight and having chaired two different kinds of boards, I wanted to share some simple tips for how to be a better board member.

My first board role

I’ve always been motivated to use my time and skills to help those who need it most. From volunteering with a literacy charity whilst studying, to becoming a volunteer-mentor with Friendship Works after moving to London, “giving back” is something I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. But after these experiences, I had the urge to go a step further by joining a charity board.

The urge kicked-in after my first few years at Pilotlight, where I gained tremendous insights into charity board dynamics. I felt I could make a valuable contribution as a young trustee — a somewhat rare commodity! I looked for roles in charities supporting young peoples’ skills development and employability. I eventually joined the board of CareTrade, a London-based charity creating long-term supported internships and employment for young people with autism. New to the trustee role, there was a learning curve. It took time to fully understand the time commitment needed to be effective, how to be patient yet persistent, and how to strike a balance between being supportive whilst remaining challenging.

Becoming a Chair of Trustees

As the CareTrade board evolved I was elected Chair of Trustees about a year and a half in to my first term. As Chair I worked closely with the CEO to build a platform for growth. We recruited new trustees, built a strong, diverse board and formed subcommittees to provide greater guidance and focus. We also held the first staff/trustee away day and crafted a new business plan. We formed a strong sense of team and collective ambition. I was proud of the work we’d accomplished together over the years and with the charity in such a strong position, I felt it was time for me to step down.

In 2019 I took on a different kind of challenge, chairing a newly formed advisory board for the LMP group of social businesses focused on education, apprenticeships and social impact. This is an exciting opportunity to play an active role in guiding a high growth business, balancing purpose and profit. My role here is to establish and cultivate a strong advisory board, which can provide the necessary support for the two Directors as they drive the businesses forward. I’m enjoying this new opportunity and am interested to see how the organisation develops.

How to be a better board member

I’ve learnt a lot from these two board roles but I know there is still so much more to learn! For anyone considering taking on a trustee role, I’d say do it... provided you are able to fully commit and appreciate you'll learn plenty along the way. It is a fantastic way to make a difference, but there is also so much to gain from the experience, and the impact you can help create is vast.

Here are my top tips:

1. Work as a team

Together, a board is greater than the sum of its parts. A key role for the chair and CEO is to cultivate a sense of team. Put time and energy into really getting to know everyone and consider how best to use subcommittees to create focus and help get things done.

2. Value difference

Everyone comes from a different viewpoint, background and set of skills. Unless trustees feel valued, they won’t work effectively together. It’s so important to value difference and for everyone on the board to have a sense of belonging.

3. Have high expectations

As a new board member, it takes time to fully understand the commitment required, and what your contribution can be. It’s important to have high expectations of each other. There are many levels to this, but unless you have high expectations, you’re never going to be able to drive forward confidently.

4. Know when to step down

Quite often, trustees stay too long in the role. This may be due to a variety of reasons, but it’s important to know when you’ve contributed all you can and therefore when to step down. It can be a tough personal decision, so boards should also ensure defined terms of service and stick to them.

If you're looking to develop your skills for board roles, become a Pilotlighter.