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#MeetTheAmbassadors: Michael Abiodun Olatokun

Jasmin Glynne

19 April 2021

Each week we will be spotlighting one of our amazing 2021 cohort of Ambassadors! This week we caught up with London Regional Ambassador Michael Abiodun Olatokun to discuss his experience with trusteeship and the importance of diversity in the boardroom!

Michael Abiodun Olatokun

LONDON AMBASSADOR

Young Trustees Movement Ambassador

Michael is a researcher and project manager focused on exploring the connection between rights, citizenship and education. He leads the Bingham Centre's strategic area of focus on Citizenship and the Rule of Law. He is the Coordinator of 'The Rule of Law for Citizenship Education', a nationwide programme in which young people are taught about the rule of law and human rights. As a result of the success of this work, Michael was asked to join the Solicitor General's Public Legal Education Committee. Prior to joining the Bingham Centre Michael worked as a political organiser encouraging young people and disenfranchised groups to participate in public life. He has led voter registration projects that have successfully registered hundreds of thousands of first-time voters, working with the Cabinet Office and other partners to promote voter engagement in the run-up to the 2016 European Union Referendum. The University of Nottingham gave Michael an 'Alumni Laureate Award' to recognise his democratic engagement work and he was named a (fee-waiving) Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts in 2017. Outside of his citizenship work, Michael has been a successful non-executive director of four charities. He has also served as an advisor of public education authorities. As the current Deputy Chair of the Teaching Excellence Framework Subject Pilot Panel for Law (Business, Education and Social Care are also considered under the remit of the committee), Michael leads senior law academics in piloting, testing and applying methods for assessing quality in higher education programmes.

HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN TRUSTEESHIP?

Growing up, I was really passionate about helping young people to take part in politics, helping my local authority to combat issues of inner-city deprivation and tackling racism. I was chomping at the bit to change the world. I spent every moment of my free time after my GCSEs developing as a leader within grassroots movements and youth empowerment programmes. I was a Member of Youth Parliament, an advisor to the Children’s Commissioner and led efforts at my school to raise money for organisations such as Amnesty International and Water Aid.

In those formative years as a participant in charity programmes, I was occasionally frustrated where I thought that the organisations I worked with could be more effective. These early experiences left me with a desire to advise those organisations at a more senior level, but I did not know how to go about making that desire a reality. Like 95% of the UK population, I was not aware that charities were led by groups of volunteer directors that were responsible for the vision, performance and compliance of the organisation, and I would not take the next step for several years.

That journey started at university, in my role as an officer of the University of Nottingham Students’ Union (UoNSU). I had the opportunity to apply for trusteeship, though I was not successful, and instead became a member of the Reporting and Finance Committee (RFC), the board responsible for monitoring the financial performance of the organisation. This exposed me to a range of issues that I had not previously considered, but which were pivotal to the functioning of a charity. RFC made decisions such as the recommendation of departmental budgets to the Trustee Board, appointment of auditors and determined whether the organisation could afford to pay a living wage to its staff.

This taste of board-like responsibility began a lifelong interest in trusteeship. Soon after finishing at UoNSU I moved to London. I applied for, and was asked to join, the Trustee Boards at the University of Westminster Students’ Union, the Diana Award and the British Youth Council that year. Getting my name on the Companies House site signified my development from a participant in charity programmes to a leader ‘in the room where the decisions are made’. Those decisions were key to my maturity and development; at those organisations I was responsible for the appointment and line management of Chief Executives, rebranding exercises, navigating the political climate, seeking funding and acting as an advocate for causes close to my heart.

WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO BECOME AN AMBASSADOR FOR THE YOUNG TRUSTEES MOVEMENT?

I joined the Movement because trusteeship is an important part of my professional identity that I wish more young people, and more black people, were able to experience. Both groups are historically under-represented in public life and trusteeship unfortunately contributes to that situation.

My trustee roles have helped me to develop my ability to participate in high-powered public service environments, such as chairing a panel for the regulator of universities and taking up a national role to diversify the legal profession. I think I would have been a much less suitable, and confident, candidate for those opportunities had I not been a trustee in my early career. It is almost unheard of for Black men from inner-city areas to serve on the trustee boards of London’s charities, and I want to get more people like me onto boards. Inaccessible routes to decision-making spaces are one of the manifestations of institutional racism, and they combine with a scepticism of young trustees to compound the exclusion of young black Briton from boards.  I will be working with my colleagues Bola Ajose, Jouja Maamri and Afshan D'Souza-Lodhi on these issues.

What do you hope to achieve in your role?

Asking for an arbitrary number of years of experience in order to be useful as a trustee, is both exclusive and unhelpful. This reasoning, that trustees require an arbitrary number of years of experience in order to be useful, is both exclusive and unhelpful. These oversimplified yardsticks of trustee ability do not really answer the important questions “is this person going to be able to help us to cope with the risks our charity will face?” or “is this person going to provide appropriate and meaningful advice in the context of our charity?”

Instead, I would ask the reader the following questions:

  • Are you a ‘digital native’ having known the internet all of your life?
  • Do you know what it means to make tuition fee payments?
  • Are you ever concerned about how much the costs of purchasing property have risen since your parents’ generation?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you have significant life experience that the vast majority of trustees do not possess. You would also likely be able to bring a credible perspective on matters that will affect a significant proportion of a charity’s beneficiaries. The role of every charity is to act in the public interest by serving those beneficiaries, and it is difficult to argue that trustees can understand their beneficiaries’ needs without critical, pragmatic voices from amongst their number championing the views of their contemporaries.

The assumptions of trustee boards are drawn from very narrow banks of life experience, with Charity Commission research telling us that the average trustee possesses a high degree of relative privilege. When compared with the average Briton, they are more aged (average age  55-64%), male (67%), white (92%), resource-rich (75% have incomes above the national median), time-rich (some 51% of trustees are retired). A young trustee, or a trustee that has lived experience of issues that affect minority groups, brings a richness to their discussions that I do not believe is currently recognised with its due weight.

A flexible and open approach to the recruitment of trustees would change the way that the charity sector thinks, whilst also creating a pipeline of future chairs and treasurers who have been raised in a more inclusive movement. This campaign is about closing the ‘skills gap’. Young people are downplaying their abilities by not applying to trustee boards, telling themselves that they are not good enough when they in fact are. Trustee recruiters are compiling job descriptions and person specifications that exclude on the basis of age and experience, to the detriment of charities that could benefit from diverse talent that thinks differently and more creatively than trustees do (or can) at present.

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