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My journey to becoming a young trustee: 4 lessons I learned

Leander Bischof

11 June 2023

Over the past few weeks I’ve been taking on a new challenge to become a trustee. In this blog, I’ll reflect on my thoughts and feelings, the outcomes, and share the 4 most important lessons I learned. I hope you’ll find this encouraging. I’ve shared my motivations, experiences, and insights on various aspects of this exciting journey in a weekly series on the Digital Hub which you can read if you’d like to find out more.

Taking the first step

The journey began with my deep-rooted passion for environmentalism and the belief that my generation holds the key to addressing the pressing issue of climate change. In the first blog post, I expressed my motivations, expectations, and fears about this journey. The desire to help people has always been at the forefront of my mind, and I saw charities as vehicles for positive change.

Despite my enthusiasm, I had to recognise my limited knowledge of charity governance. It was a world I had yet to fully understand, which did cause insecurities about my suitability for a trustee role. As a student with limited work experience, I often questioned whether I would be able to meet the expectations and responsibilities of leading a charity.

Nevertheless, my hopes outweighed my uncertainties. I looked forward to meeting inspiring individuals, overcoming challenges, and ultimately becoming a change-maker in the environmental charity sector. I believed that by documenting this journey, I could inspire others to start their own transformative journeys and collectively make a difference.

Lesson 1: Only accept a position when it fits you

Throughout the journey, I realised that becoming a young trustee is a process that takes much dedication and it’s not as simple as just applying to some charities and hoping one will offer me a position. I learned how important finding the right charity is.

In one of the interviews I had, I realised quite early on that in this charity I wouldn’t feel comfortable. The interview with the CEO of that charity was short and cold. While it was designed to be an informal talk, it turned out to be a long list of complaints about the current state of the charity and its trustee board by the CEO. I was confronted with the tension within that charity board about its future alignment. While I was very excited about this charity when I applied, after the interview, I started doubting whether that type of environment would be a good fit for me. After all, this would have been my first trustee position and for that, I was hoping to find an inclusive board that accepts and supports my learning process as a trustee.

An important learning from this experience is that it’s better to not be in a trustee position than to be in a toxic board environment. In my opinion, taking over a trustee role is a voluntary act to positively impact a charity I care about and I believe, nobody should have to donate their time and effort to a toxic environment. Trustees should be valued for their contributions and should be treated in a respectful and collaborative manner.

Lesson 2: Trustee boards can be insular and hard to ‘break’ into

Another realisation I had was that applying to a trustee role as an outsider is difficult. From some charities, I received feedback that they appreciate my interest in the charity but they could only offer me a volunteer role as I had no previous involvement with the charity. I do understand this position, it does make sense to recruit a trustee from a pool of people who were previously involved with the charity. For this reason, I think many charities probably don’t publicly advertise trustee roles. As a result, it might be an option for aspiring young trustees to just send out open applications to their dream charities. On the other hand, if a charity prefers to recruit a trustee from the inside, why publicly advertise the role? I did get the feeling that my age was a decisive factor for the response of the charity and not only my lack of previous work for them. At the same time, I believe having a young trustee coming to the board with no previous involvement with the charity can be a great advantage as this trustee can bring fresh perspectives and ways of working. I will highlight this in my next applications and it might be a good idea to do this as well if you are in a similar situation!

Lesson 3: Be quick but don’t expect too much

Some charities simply seemed to ignore my application. I have not heard back from them until today and I don’t think I will ever hear back from them. At the same time, I saw many ads for trustee positions being taken off the internet before the official deadline. I learned to be quick in applying for a position as a result of that.

Lesson 4: Don’t take rejections personal

Overall, it can be quite frustrating to see that despite all my efforts to become a young trustee, so far, this has not worked out. Dealing with rejections is never easy and it certainly was not easy for me, especially in the beginning. However, I also spent this year sending out dozens of summer internship applications and despite securing an internship in the end, I received countless rejections. Therefore, I was already used to that feeling and the fact that I was successful in finding an internship gives me hope to apply for more trustee positions.

I believe the attitude towards the applications is important. I cannot expect the first application to be successful and most likely the second and third as well. Finding the right charity takes time, which I need to be aware of during the application process to not be too frustrated over rejections. Maybe, the rejections even have a positive side to them.

The more I delved into these applications, the more I learned about charity governance and the expectations towards trustees. Despite not gaining any experience in a trustee role, I am convinced that right now I would be a better trustee than I would have been at the start of the journey. Essentially, I think it’s important to not take rejections personally. After receiving a rejection, I always feel bad about myself.

As an ambitious person, a rejection feels like a failure and can be quite discouraging. Of course, some reflection is needed to find ways to improve the applications to be more successful next time and sometimes, the application just might not have been good enough. However, I learned that the reasons why someone gets a role and someone else doesn’t are often quite trivial and often do not reflect my quality as an applicant. Therefore, one of my learnings is to keep applying until I find the charity that fits me.

Conclusions

My personal conclusion from this journey is that, despite being unable to secure a trustee position in an environmental charity, my hopes for future success are high. It hurts that I couldn’t be a better example. This blog series was supposed to encourage others to apply, led by me as a successful example. It shows that becoming a young trustee is difficult, it requires time, effort, and a healthy amount of resilience towards rejections.

I applied for six trustee positions and it seems like next time I will need to apply for more to have a more realistic chance. I am sure that eventually I will become a young trustee.

This is a process and I have already made significant progress throughout. I managed to secure interviews and despite being unsuccessful in the end, making it this far shows me that I do have a realistic chance. And only because I haven’t managed to become a trustee yet, it does not mean you will have a similar experience. Maybe you will only need one application. You will never find out unless you try!

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