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How becoming a charity trustee can help women get ahead in business

14 Sep 2018 By Helen Simpson

Helen Simpson explains how taking on a charity trusteeship can help women gain valuable exposure to board-level leadership

Earlier this year, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) highlighted that FTSE 100 companies are on track to reach their target of having a third of board positions filled by women by 2020.  

There are currently 309 women on FTSE 100 boards, up from 12.5 per cent in 2011 to 28.7 per cent. Progress has been clearly made in terms of increasing the numbers of women on boards, but many companies still need to address their gender equality issues. 

The representation of women on boards outside the FTSE 100 is lower and gender pay reporting figures published in April highlighted that men are paid more than women in eight out of 10 firms, so it’s clear that many companies have work to do in terms of progressing their female talent.

Some companies are embracing new forms of professional development for their emerging leaders at all levels and this is by introducing trustee programmes and encouraging their staff to sit on charity boards. 

Many charities have vacancies at board level and will welcome trustees from corporate backgrounds with professional skills. Some companies also view such programmes as a core part of their corporate social responsibility strategies – as a means of contributing to society in a meaningful and sustainable way.

Trusteeships offer employees a unique opportunity to understand how a board is run and governed – which can accelerate people’s development and develop their leadership skills. 

When we first launched our board-level volunteering programme, Step on Board, most companies offered it to their senior executives and leaders, but today we’re seeing more companies adopting it to develop future leaders as part of their succession planning.  

Allison Watson, head of EMEA business and operations staffing at Google, recently completed the Step on Board programme and has joined the board of Working Chance, a charity that recruits women leaving the criminal justice and care system. 

Allison has loved the fact she is using the skills she acquired at Google to help the charity improve its digital strategy. She has introduced Working Chance to the Google Foundation and the charity is currently submitting a proposal to Google to set up a digital hub to give women the skills they need to re-enter the workforce.

Discussing her motivations for becoming a trustee, Allison said that charity work has always been important to her and she loves the fact she is using her skills to support the charity’s aims. She also said it has given her a difference perspective on life and work and would recommend the experience to others. 

Another female executive that completed the programme is media lawyer Dina Shiloh, a partner at law firm Gallant Maxwell. She agrees that trusteeship can support career advancement. She is now a trustee at the Microloan Foundation, a charity that helps women in sub-Saharan Africa break the cycle of poverty by providing loans for training and support to help them set up their own business. 

Dina would recommend Step on Board to any professional considering becoming a trustee, especially younger people as she believes it provides a solid introduction and understanding of the requirements of the role a trustee will play. 

She says she doesn’t know of any other way for people in their early thirties to gain board experience so early in their careers. It’s also very good for personal development.

I agree. I am currently a trustee of the BBC Radio 4 St Martin-in-the-Fields Charity and my charity work sits alongside my corporate work, which means I am constantly learning and developing new skills that benefit the charities I work with and my business.

Helen Simpson is chair of Trustees Unlimited and head of consultancy Simpson & Associates

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