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Last updated: 13 Jun 2023
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The challenges of recruiting to International NGO boards of trustees

Achieving successful governance is the responsibility of International NGO boards. However, in an increasingly challenging operating environment with competing priorities, how does a board balance the requirements and considerations and find the right people?

Following the launch of “Governance: a guide for international NGOs”, Buzzacott and Bond have launched a programme of events designed to take trustees through the key challenges boards of international development organisations face. 

Event overview

Event overview

The first event focused on recruitment challenges, with guest speakers David French of Trustees Unlimited and former trustee of Y Care International and Lena Bheeroo, Anti-racism and equity manager at Bond and Trustee of EachOther, sharing their advice on how trustee boards can balance recruiting for skills with representation and diversity, as is it these areas that trustees and senior International NGO leaders have told us that they’re finding most challenging.

The guidelines set out by the Charity Commission state that the core duty of trustees is to act in the charity’s best interest, making balanced and adequately informed decisions. To do this, a board must be balanced with the right blend of skills, aligned values, representation, diversity, and experience, and have the right culture to work effectively together. However, for the most part, trustees of international development organisations are not living members of the communities they serve and therefore lack the perspective of lived experience. This adds another layer of complexity to trustee recruitment.

There’s not a one size fits all approach to board recruitment. The first step is to take a step back, assess your current board structure, and its strengths and weaknesses. When having these conversations, it’s important to remember that trustee boards share formal responsibility for the charity and must follow the seven pillars of governance as outlined by the Charity Governance Code. As part of this, trustees must implement the principles of EDI and integrity to lead by example. A simple matrix is a useful tool to open these conversations and collectively agree on where gaps are and plan to fill them.

Advice for trustees

Tips and advice for trustees of International NGOs

On skills

  • Use the 3 R’s of governance
    • Roles (key point: distinction between governance and management)
    • Responsibilities (key point: being clear about the range of skills required among trustees)
    • Relationships (key point: establishing good team dynamics is critical to the effectiveness of the board).
  • Undertake a skills audit to identify the type of skills, experience and expertise your board needs and where the gaps are currently.

On diversity and representation

  • Be guided by the “Nothing about us, without us” principle. Your people are at the heart of your charity. Working to ensure accurate representation will allow you to better understand and respond to needs, ultimately fulfilling the mission and giving you a legacy of trust and legitimacy. Developing an effective board recruitment strategy will take time, but the journey will be rewarding as you build trust and engagement with marginalised communities.
  • Think carefully about the onboarding process for new trustees. What types of spaces and support are you offering to people, what type of culture are you bringing people into? Are you going the extra mile to make them feel welcome?
  • Consider undertaking training for onboarding to help give the new trustee a grounding and confidence to use their voice. This is especially important for those from a marginalised community or bringing a lived experience. Don’t assume they have confidence – they may need reassurance that they’re an expert in their field.
  • Mentoring can be useful to ensure continued support once trustees are onboard.
  • To help shift the power traditionally held by the chair, consider rotating the chair for each board meeting to get a different leadership style and to build the confidence of trustees. Each will bring their own pace and approach to managing questions and inviting conversations, making for more interesting and rich conversations by breaking down the monotony of having the same person lead each session.
  • Have an agreed process for contributing to meetings to enable useful discussions. Some chairs ask trustees to wait their turn to speak during board meetings, which might stop those more inclined to spontaneously interrupt from sharing their valuable contribution. The impact this could have is that while the board itself is diverse, how it acts becomes predictable.
  • Don’t be afraid to disrupt the status quo: there can be nervousness about having a more diverse board because it will inevitably bring in different viewpoints and possibly people less invested in what has already been created. Instead, focus on the many positives that bringing in different perspectives and experiences will have on the organisation's leadership, such as more fruitful discussion and robust decision-making.

On how and where to recruit to get the right people

  • How and where you advertise or make it known that you’re looking for new board members is critical, as it will dictate what kind of people you get. If you want to recruit someone with a different experience or skillset, then be intentional about where you advertise.
  • There is a significant trend towards transparent recruitment of new trustees, which are the hallmarks of good practice and leads to greater credibility and accountability. A lack of this puts the board in a vulnerable position. 
  • Reach out to and build relationships/partnerships with different communities or in the communities that you would like represented on your board. Spend time building networks and broadening your contacts at all levels.
  • ‘Open’ recruitment might not generate the diversity you want or need because the places where the role is advertised don’t reach the people you’re looking for. Re-evaluate what works for your charity, as open recruitment methods aren’t producing diverse candidates. A more flexible transparent approach might be required if you find somebody representing the communities you work for through a different route. 
Join the working group
How Bond and Buzzacott support International NGO trustees
  • Join quarterly meetings in 2023-24. These events are open to all trustees of INGOs and focus on areas of common concern.
  • Read the Buzzacott and Bond guide. Governance: A guide for international NGOs is an up-to-date, relevant resource and reference point for practical support and guidance.
  • Join the online Governance Forum for Trustees of INGOs, a private online forum for trustees of international NGOs to share learnings, discuss concerns and hear from governance experts. Curated by Buzzacott and Bond. Contact Jemma Ashman for more details and to sign up. 
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