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MEET ANTHONY WHEELER

Megan Raybould

09 June 2020

We chatted to Anthony about his experience of being a trustee and his thoughts on trusteeship.

Tell us about your journey to become a trustee.

I’ve been involved with charities in various capacities since I was a teenager. I volunteered in charity shops growing up in Newcastle and took part in a few charitable initiatives at school and university, and it was at university that I started working with Cambridge Student Community Action. They pair student volunteers with people in the local community living with some form of disadvantage in their life.

At first I worked as a 1-to-1 befriender, then became a project leader overseeing around 45 other volunteers. During that time I was able to set up a life skills awards scheme, helped to apply for grants and secured National Lottery funding. I then realised that I loved that side of charity work – not just volunteering, but the governance and leadership aspect too. I liked the idea that I could be the person helping 45 other people make a difference, rather than me just doing one thing. So, when I was in my final year at university I applied to be the Student President of the charity’s Steering Group (a sort of advisory body).

I hadn’t realised that the Student President was also a trustee of the charity! In my induction when I realised I was a trustee I was like “I don’t know what this is, I don’t know what that means and I don’t quite know what I signed up for.” Ultimately it wasn’t too much of a shock and the roles I’d had before in the charity were a good segue into the legal responsibilities and all the other things that come with trusteeship.

Did you feel confident when you first joined the board?

At first I thought, "I'm 20 and I have nothing to offer these people…”

But because the charity works so closely with students and really values their voice, it turned out I had a lot to offer!

When I graduated I left that role, but one of the trustees reached out and asked me to apply for a 3-year trustee role on the board. At first I said no. Again, I didn’t think I had anything to offer, especially because the board always has three young trustees. A few months later they asked again, but my response was the same: “I’m floundering in the real world and I’m just starting out career-wise. I don’t quite know what I can offer you. I’m really sorry.”

It wasn’t until they sat down with me a few weeks later and convinced me that I had something to offer – or at least to come along to a meeting and see what happens. And here I am almost three years later realising that I actually had a lot to give to the charity and still a lot more to offer. This is especially true as last month I was voted in as the Chair of Trustees!

And that’s exactly what the Young Trustees Movement stands for, to show and acknowledge that we as young people have a lot to give, especially if we’re supported in the right ways and given the right opportunities to do the best we can.

Can you explain a little more about how you overcame the feeling of being an imposter or not having anything to offer?

I suppose I’ve suffered quite a lot from imposter syndrome. I came to Cambridge from a comprehensive school in the North East with very low uptake of students to higher education and from a family where I was the first person to even study A levels, never mind go to university. So, going to Cambridge was huge. It took me a while to realise that I actually belonged there on my own academic merit and once I did, I started to realise I’d been given an opportunity I could really make the most of. As I grew into that mentality, I started to feel a lot less like an imposter.

Then thinking about trusteeship and in the boardroom, my charity has a governance system made up of trustees and a student steering group who are a day-to-day advisory board. This reflects the fact it’s both a registered charity and a student society in the University with both groups working quite closely with our two part-time members of staff. Because of this structure, the youth voice is so valued in what we do and the environment in the boardroom was really welcoming, open and inclusive.

Even though the other people on the board were quite senior in their careers or well established in local networks and at first I found that quite scary, it wasn’t as if we were all sat round in a really archaic, cold room; we actually were all just chatting in the charity office with everyone making each other tea and coffee with biscuits and cake on the table. That immediately made the environment more welcoming and informal, and I think that’s really ingrained in our board culture. It was still daunting to start out with, and I’d still think “I have nothing to offer” but that environment in itself was so conducive to helping me find my voice and use it to better the charity.

Do you think that’s something lots of young trustees experience?

I think for quite a lot of charities it’s that inclusive boardroom culture that might be missing, making it potentially exclusionary to ‘others’ – and that includes young people. I was lucky in that respect, in our board meetings we’d regularly be asked “what do you think as our student members?” if the other trustees noticed we were being a bit more reserved on certain points or they acknowledged their voice on a certain topic wasn’t the one the board really needed to hear.

When I left the board, I still thought that my role as a student trustee meant that I was a ‘young trustee’ and they were the ‘real’ trustees. And to me, the ‘real’ trustees were there because they offered professional advice, they offered a network and they offered life experience. When I was approached to apply again for the trustee role, there were already three young people on the board so I didn’t think they needed me – it hadn’t occurred to me that I was a ‘real’ trustee too.

When I went back to observe a trustee meeting, we started going through the agenda and I immediately had ideas and opinions. It was almost as if someone held up a mirror to me and I was there saying “Why didn’t I realise this earlier? Obviously I have things to give!”

I think that happens with a lot of young people. There’s a tendency to downplay your experiences, rather than acknowledge and have confidence in all these skills we’re building up.

How would you define success for yourself or a successful day?

I think it's interesting because you can define success in lots and lots of different ways.

But, for me, if I can end the day really content and happy and saying, "I've made a difference. I've done a good job" that’s success.

It’s also about constantly wanting to improve. And not just myself but improve things around me and seeing the impact I can have in the wider world. It’s like I said earlier when I was working with one family, it was so nice to really see the impact I was making to their lives, but then when I was working with 45 volunteers doing the same thing in 45 different families that was a huge success for me. I’d already seen the impact in one family and was now seeing it replicated 45 times over.

How do you manage the more mundane side of being a trustee and stay motivated?

So, every board meeting we’re given a case study or client feedback. I think staying connected to the impact and work our charity does really helps us with the mundane stuff.

Because all of those little actions mean the important, bigger actions can happen. I think because we’re a small, local charity, we’re also not so far removed from our decisions. Maybe if that weren’t the case, signing things off in meetings, never seeing the volunteers that do the work or the actual impact in the community it might be harder.

We focus on the outcomes, the shared goal and understand exactly how every decision we make plays into making things better for the community. And importantly, the community we live or work in.

What do you think the biggest misconception is about young trusteeship?

The idea that young people are alien, that we’re a different species or something. I think trustee boards sometimes think they can’t welcome young trustees because they can’t relate to them, wouldn’t quite know what to do with them or want them just to focus on social media or digital work.

I’m sure if they sat down and had a meaningful interaction with a young person, they’d quickly realise they had lots in common. After all, if we’re looking for a trusteeship at their charity it’s fair to say we’d share the same values.

I also think there’s an unconscious bias when people are looking for trustees, people tend to recruit other trustees who are similar to them. They look for people who ‘fit’ their culture and ‘fit’ with what they’re doing – the assumption Is that young people aren’t that.

One thing that’s quite nice though is that lots of people I’ve spoken to seem open to having that misconception challenged. Perhaps it’s more around a change that needs to happen in wider society around diversity and inclusion that can lead to a real appreciation around what young people have to offer. A change that we all have a part to play in changing.

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