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Going full board: How Back-Up Trust found its new trustees

Becky Hill explains how spinal cord injury charity the Back-Up Trust went about recruiting new members to its board of trustees.

The challenge

Every year in the UK, around 1,000 people are permanently paralysed as a result of a spinal cord injury. Since 1986, the Back-Up Trust (Back Up) has helped those affected and their families realise that there is life after such an injury, and helps them to make it happen.

Back Up’s articles of association stipulate that the board of trustees should comprise 12 suitably qualified individuals. Of these, ideally 50 per cent should be spinal cord injured to represent the population for which Back Up exists. Back at the beginning of 2016, our trustee numbers had fallen to eight, of whom three were spinal cord injured. How to bring the complement back up to 12 and re-establish the balance between non-spinal cord injured members and those with personal experience of a spinal cord injury? A recruitment drive was needed.

Where to start?

Actually, not at the beginning! The Charity Commission’s Guide to Finding New Trustees (CC30) encourages boards to start with identifying what skills, knowledge and experience are needed to make sure that the charity is well governed and is run effectively, efficiently and appropriately to its size and complexity. It goes on to say that a good way to identify any gaps is to review regularly the skills and experience of the existing board members. This is exactly what we do at Back Up. We have a constituted governance sub-committee whose specific responsibility it is to “review the skills and performance of board members and oversee the recruitment and induction of new trustees”. So we knew from the very start what we wanted to include in the job description and person specification. And we had available from the very start the designated board members to design and execute the recruitment.

Plain-English materials

Although we quickly identified certain skillsets which would augment the capability of the board, of equal importance to us was the desire to attract applicants with personal experience of spinal cord injury and to increase the diversity of the board, particularly in relation to age. Back Up is the only charity in the UK that provides dedicated services for children and young people with a spinal cord injury; we wished to attract younger applicants, aged 16 to 24, to better reflect the population we support and to broaden our discussion and decision-making abilities. It was important therefore to frame the recruitment process to appeal to this audience. So, rather than a matter-of-fact, dry job description and person specification document, we set about producing a vibrant, appealing Trustee Application Pack, written in plain, non-intimidating English.

For example, when referring to governance in the key skills looked for in a trustee, rather than say “the ability to think strategically, creatively and for the long term”, we wrote “the ability to think about the bigger picture and longer term (five years ahead), as well as the here and now”.

To ensure that the language and tone of the recruitment pack was truly inclusive, we sought advice from two important sources: our own Youth Advisory Group, comprising young volunteers who help design and deliver our services for Under 18s; and, externally, the Participation People – an organisation that is passionate about giving every child and young person a voice.

This was the front cover of the recruitment pack, (see image) designed to show applicants at a glance the age range of Back Up’s service users and an indication of their injury in the use of a powered or manual wheelchair.

The inside front cover carried a personal message from me explaining that ‘‘this pack has been developed to demystify the role of trustee”.

What was interesting was that even though the style, language and tone of our recruitment pack were specifically designed to be more accessible to a younger audience, it was also found to be so for all potential applicants.

Detailed recruitment process

The recruitment pack was downloadable from the Back Up main website page and a link took applicants straight to an online application form. Care was taken to set out the recruitment process in detail:

  • a deadline for submission
  • a deadline for response by the reviewing group (members of the governance committee and the CEO), with feedback provided for those not selected for interview
  • the interview dates for shortlisted applicants – where, by whom (two trustees and the CEO) and how long
  • a deadline for decision following interview and offer of mentoring for unsuccessful interviewees
  • date of first board meeting for successful applicants.

Spreading the word

Back Up relies on a large number of volunteers to help deliver our services and these, together with our current and past service users and our many other supporters, provided a natural audience for advertising the vacancies alongside mainstream channels such as the sector press; there was no need to engage a recruitment agency. We used the Youth Advisory Group Facebook page and the dedicated Under-18s eNewsletter specifically to target younger applicants. We also advertised the position through specific online Facebook groups and networks for people with spinal cord injury, in order to attract the widest possible pool of talent.

In our shortlisting, interview and selection processes we were mindful not to discriminate against younger applicants who might otherwise have been disadvantaged by lack of experience.

We weighted our criteria accordingly.

Full board – and a pipeline

Back Up now has a full complement of 12 trustees. Now, half of our board members are women and the same proportion are spinal cord injured. The four new trustees were selected from a large number of applicants. They bring with them a range of skills and the business experience we were seeking and all have a spinal cord injury. One is in his early 20s and has already brought a welcome fresh perspective to our thinking and decision-making. Such was the strength and depth of the applications received that we asked two of the applicants if they were willing to act as reserves in case another trustee decided to step down. One of these reserve trustees has very recently and seamlessly joined the board for exactly that reason.

For Back Up, going from near half board to full board has been a very worthwhile and enriching experience.

Becky Hill is chair of the Back-Up Trust