The Value of Volunteering — Weeknotes s1 e9 w/e 24 July 2020

This week I have been doing some voluntary work as well as the usual stuff, and a long but successful Board meeting in the day job (although I think we probably reached our natural limit at three hours!)

I am lucky enough to be on the Board of Tai Pawb (@TaiPawb), a charity which promotes equality and social justice in Welsh housing and I am about to start as Trustee with the Institute of Welsh Affairs. I also do some volunteering work in my local community. I thought it would be useful to explore the value of volunteering this week, with a particular focus on Board membership, as it feels a bit of an under-explored topic and I want to shout it out from the rooftops.

Techie note — I do use Board Member/Trustee and Charity/Not for profit/housing association broadly interchangeably here for a general discussion, but of course there can be subtle differences which are worth exploring at the individual opportunity level.

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Starting at the beginning, knowing that Board memberships are available in the first place is the first hurdle, and I have met plenty of great people who say “What? Me?” with great disbelief when I suggest getting involved. Board membership, authority figures and our impressions of accountability and judgement are all at play here (sounds like a great psychology PhD subject, doesn’t it!) The way charities approach recruitment is important as this can either reinforce or break down those stereotypes.

I do think to become a Board Member is a great way to overcome impostor syndrome. I would emphasise doing your due diligence though. Check out that their numbers and their plans stack up. Make sure you can make a difference to them. It’s not necessarily knowing the technical activities of a charity (although that helps) or on the nebulous subject of “fit” but you must find out whether there is a value match between you as prospective Board Member and the rest of the team. Trust me if there is not a match at the values level (and risk appetite level, if I am honest) and if you can’t make the necessary time commitment then trouble will brew. An organisation which can’t articulate those is probably not one I would get involved with if I am honest.

The best Board Members I have met are not necessarily those with the most impressive titles, and huge amounts of technical experience can get in the way sometimes, not help. The beginner’s mindset is often a useful one to adopt at the Board level. Beware being the know-it-all Trustee, the best Board Members know when they’re getting too close or indulging themselves. My instinct is that there is a strong correlation with self-awareness, life experience and emotional intelligence and success at the Board table. Being a Board Member helps you craft those skills.

On a similar point, worth noting I have not gone on Boards with a specific intent to improve the CV, (it is more the case my natural curiosity getting the better of me), but it certainly has done my career no harm at all. It’s a great way to get leadership experience if chosen wisely. It also builds networks, knowledge and understanding — for example, I have learnt so much about policymaking and the network of inter-connected stakeholders in Wales from my work with Tai Pawb, for example, which has been useful in the day job, and accelerated learning in all sorts of ways. I am better for it.

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On the wider point of networking, the importance of a diverse Board cannot be understated. Firstly it prevents organisational group think and reduces biases. At a personal level, hearing other Board member’s approaches to situations has revealed to me my blind spots. This is a healthy thing — gets me out of my echo chamber.

That said, it’s not fun being the token member, which has happened to me in meetings more generally in the past (thankfully not currently!). This is a very minor example of tokenism, granted, but comments and stereotypes around being the only accountant in the room, for example, are not very helpful. Nor are ‘being the only women in the room’ comments. And my experiences are incredibly mild, compared to some. We need to take time to understand the other people around the table and not just see them as faceless titles. The role of the Chair promoting this approach is vital.

A huge benefit to getting involved is the insight into another organisation. In my day job, I work with one model of governance, but of course, there are many models of governance, each tailored to its own culture. Its always nice to share models (for example the consent agenda*, which has huge application in remote working) and share good practice. It is easy to fall in the trap of thinking there is only one way of “doing” governance whereas it is all about transparency and managing risk in my view. Its easy for governance to remain old fashioned (I was tempted to say Victorian!) and certainly governance approaches need to keep up the pace with technologies and risk, which is a challenge in a space not known for its innovation. Even if governance isn’t in your day job, it is really useful seeing how other organisations go about doing things (such as Covid-19 planning).

A comment also on paid Board membership, which is increasingly the route in Welsh social housing, and following the soul searching following Kids Company** of increasing interest across the whole third sector. I recognise this is a complex and sometimes controversial topic but to my mind, once a not for profit reaches a certain scale, risk and complexity then the benefits of remuneration outweigh the downsides. Welsh social housing is largely over the line on this threshold I would argue. Demands on trustees in terms of time commitment and risk have also increased since I started my professional career. Certainly, I have seen the benefits of a remunerated Board in my day job. But just as there is no one size fits all approach to governance then it will not be appropriate in all circumstances, and it needs careful planning if one is to go ahead.

One other thing I should note. Wales has a smaller professional cohorts than the rest of the UK, and many Boards have big skills gaps, such as HR, legal or finance. Have a quick google. So it’s even more vital that you get involved, fellow Welsh people if you are in a position to help.

I hope this has sparked some of you to consider getting involved. Its one of those activities I think which being very purposeful rather than pure pleasure (a good run rather than a bowl of wine gums) which leads to a real sense of satisfaction. The chance to make a difference is immensely rewarding, and the value of volunteering could reap rewards for you.

* https://www.boardeffect.com/blog/what-is-a-consent-agenda-for-a-board-meeting/#:~:text=A%20consent%20agenda%20is%20a,minutes%20to%20a%20half%20hour.

** https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-33788415 (Kids Company)

Still no caffeine!

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