Younger trustees: lessons from students’ unions

By Richard Brooks, Vice President (Union Development) at the National Union of Students and Chair of NUS Charitable Services Limited.


It was a real pleasure to present recently at the Community Impact Bucks Trustee Conference. I spoke about the benefits of having younger trustees on boards. I argued it increases both the effectiveness of the charity and the sustainability of the sector.

I wanted to share learnings from students’ unions (SUs) – student-led charities with a major difference: students constitute the majority on the trustee board. This makes us a slight anomaly within the charity sector. Where the average charity trustee is aged 59, a few hundred students’ unions are bucking the trend – between ourselves handing the reins to an estimated 1,500 16-34 year olds each year.

As Vice President of NUS my job is to lead the consultancy our staff deliver to students’ union trustee boards. We are the experts in how SU trustee boards work, including how they have responded to challenges and opportunities brought by younger trustees.

To quote the Cass Centre for Charity Effectiveness (2014): “On paper, the SU operating model – effectively student and staff teams with a board comprised of largely inexperienced members who are also the key operating officers – is fundamentally flawed and should not work. Yet it does. Arguably better than other charities which have operating officers on their boards.”

Here are my four key reflections for the wider sector:

  1. Most students’ unions only became charities within the last 10 years. Even though the model isn’t perfect for us, we have benefitted enormously from standardising governance arrangements. This has allowed talent, knowledge and good practice to percolate into students’ unions from the wider sector, as well ensuring good career progression for our people. One particular strength of the charity model is it provides for a mixed board of students and lay trustees. This allows us to balance not just skills gaps by co-opting external experts, as is common, but also to form our boards in response to our key challenges. For example, we cannot avoid having high turnover rates – by design SUs have a different board composition every academic year – but this challenge is offset by recruiting lay trustees with longer terms and the duty to provide continuity.
  1. Younger trustees will come and go. Rapid turnover must not be feared. Our experience is that their ideas, energy and lack of pretentions will more than make up for any disruption the board might face. In any case it doesn’t require superpowers for a board to manage (and even embrace) a higher rate of change, a decent level of self-awareness and an appetite for disruptive thinking is more than enough.
  1. Younger boards need to be underpinned by constant induction and development activity. So by necessity students’ unions have developed a rolling programme of development for their trustees. But all trustees benefit from common activities such as team-building, introspection, audits, mentoring, coaching, independent reviews, strategic planning, mediation, conflict resolution, and peer support. Like any charities, cash is tight so activities have to be arranged on a shoestring budget but the key investment is in trustees making time for these activities in and out of meetings.
  1. Younger trustees are inexperienced and need support. However, this will not be the burden you think it is. This is an opportunity for trustees to act smarter, ask better questions of their organisation, and ditch lazy habits. Students’ unions have seen it can be a sharp wake-up call for any board to realise what shared responsibility means – that all trustees need have the right information to make decisions. Reams of raw data and no analysis are useless. This is brought sharply into focus in the context of an 18 year-old presented with intricate financial issues. Their inexperience does not release them from legal responsibility but instead demands that complex issues are broken down and presented free from jargon and obfuscation. The important point is every board we’ve seen which takes these issues of clarity and accessibility seriously will be rewarded with a step-change in performance. Asking smarter questions and ensuring everyone understands the answers inevitably helps organisations make the best use of resource, makes meetings more efficient and ensures malpractice is picked up early.

Finally, if you’re looking for great younger trustees to join your organisation the student movement is well endowed with them. We work with various sector organisations including Trustees Unlimited and TrusteeWorks.



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