Trustee Boards can be more exciting than you think

Lots of things about students’ unions make people jump out of bed and gobble down their Coco Pops in anticipation of what they can achieve.

This might be the opportunity to run Varsity, the excitement of elections or knowing that a student’s welfare needs have been met. I think I’m one of the few people though who feel this about going to a Trustee Board meeting and that’s a shame. I’m a board secretary to 5 students’ unions and induct trustees for dozens more so have a sense of the importance they bring to students.

Just over 10 years ago the way we run Trustee meetings in students’ unions changed dramatically. Unions had trustees (usually the elected officers) but decisions about risk, company accounts or staffing were often placed on the agenda next to society renewals or the subject for this year’s NUS National Demo. I think we know which of those items used to get the Coco Pops vote.

It was in part the new Charities and Companies Acts that led this change, but also unions were starting to look at themselves, their complexity and their skills independently of this. Was it fair to thrust the responsibility of overseeing a nursery on the shoulders of a part time officer without warning (my experience)? Did we want our campaigning representatives spending time worrying about accounting practice or using their energies elsewhere?

The move for having specific meetings for Trustee issues, non-student members and students who were there for their governance skills and not their political campaigning were controversial for some. These days Trustee Boards are well established, and I thought it would be useful to revisit some of these points. I also noticed on an NUS discussion website a number of questions about the make up of boards and who is the chair and so undertook research from SU websites about exactly who does sit on them.

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” – J.P.Hartley

All the things she said / Running through my head” – t.A.T.u

“External Trustees will take over the boards”

There’s an average of 3.7 trustees on boards with an average size of 11 so they remain in the minority. Unions have also realised that appointing a non-student member to the board is as much about shared values as specific skills, so its unlikely that a lay member will be against the culture of the union.

“They won’t be student led anymore”

75% of Unions have their President or another Officer as chair of the board. This provides a valuable link between the political and representative sides of the organsiation but also means that in most unions the legal and operational head is someone elected to do so by the student body.

“Ordinary students can’t get involved”

Almost as many non-Officer students sit on boards as external trustees (3.2). There’s a challenge to make sure they are supported to get involved but their contributions can be vital. Whatever other skills a board needs, critical thinking is always in demand and students should be exercising this every day in their class and essays. How often can that be said of ordinary people (i.e. not wonks) in their day to day lives?

“Unions will stop doing campaigning”

Before they became registered with the charity commission, SUs were still charities and their status as campaigning organisations hasn’t altered. The lobbying act has put extra pressure on the sector, but my experience of trustee boards is that they understand that SUs are political, campaigning bodies and they have role in ensuring the resource is there for officers to do so.

“Unions will become too corporate”

I’m never quite sure what this means. There has been a professionalisation of structures and functions and locating this in the board meeting means it isn’t distracting campaigning areas. Board professionalisation has also been of great help for Chief Executives and other senior staff in terms of personal development and appropriate challenge in a way that wasn’t widespread before.

While governance isn’t everyone’s favourite thing, the fears of some officers 10 years ago about the impact of Trustees boards has proven unfounded in my view. Letting councils and officers do campaigning and trustee boards do operation and process has enabled unions to be more effective and, like any nutritious breakfast, balanced.

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