Opinion: We’re surrounded (by excellent people)

Here NUS Development Consultant and Governance Expert Al Powell explains why he thinks that career staff in students’ unions should be charity trustees.

Trusteeship and governance are talked about a lot in the student movement- and for all the right reasons. Students’ unions set an excellent example of how to run charities, but we don’t often draw the link between our own career staff and trustees…

Largely, Trustee Boards in students’ unions are split into thirds between sabbatical trustees, student representative trustees and lay-external trustees. We also know that we put a lot of effort and resource into finding decent lay-external trustees who will bring a specific skill or knowledge that the students’ union will benefit from. So why do we not champion the career staff members that work in our students’ unions and make it easy for them to volunteer in charities as trustees?

One of the best things about working as a Development Consultant for NUS is that I get to see a whole load of different students’ unions from all around the UK- and the one consistent factor I see is that the student movement is built upon excellent people; elected officers, student volunteers and career staff. Everyone is involved to make a positive difference and to ultimately reach that catch all goal of making students’ lives better.

At the heart of this and an element helping to bring consistency are the career staff of students’ unions, those that have made a conscious decision to work in an environment that they see benefiting students from around the world and whose ultimate motivator is affecting positive change for students. This is true across all manner of disciplines; membership, advice, governance, finance, administration to name just a few. There is a genuine collective sense of togetherness in hearing from staff members that they want things to be better – and I think that this should be harnessed.

Just to be clear, I think that staff members in students’ unions are excellent – and we should shout about that!

I genuinely believe that staff members in our unions should be championed as experts in their own right and we should be looking at what we expect of our own lay-external trustees in terms of their commitment and asking ourselves how we can get more career staff into trustee positions, not just in other students’ unions but in any charity they have a drive and passion for. It seems to make sense that if, as a movement we talk at length about good governance and the importance of good lay-external trustees then we should be able to celebrate our staff and help them get into trustee positions where they can share their expertise as well as develop a greater understanding of the challenges faced by their students’ union as a charity.

I believe that volunteering for a charity has helped develop me both personally and professionally and I am thankful to NUS for allowing me volunteering days as they have come incredibly handy in being able to support the charity I Chair in Edinburgh. I also believe that it wouldn’t take much to get some of the amazing staff members from students’ unions into trustee positions, and maybe we could start by looking at our staff volunteering policies to make it easier for them – we ask it of our lay-external trustees so why not let’s help out our own staff?

Lots of charities I know across the UK, much like students’ unions are looking for excellent trustees and it would strike me that the student movement has some excellent people that it could help fill these with.

We all want to make positive social change after all…

Posted in Opinion.

One Comment

  1. Hi Al. You make some good points which I largely agree with, especially the potential for SU staff to contribute to and benefit from participation as a Trustee of a charity.
    However, I think the roles and responsibilities of Trustees can be compromised when there is too much Trustee ‘swapping’ within a sector.
    I would personally like to see SU CEOs and other staff members looking for board positions in other kinds of charities and seeking to bring in expertise and independent oversight from other sectors into their boards.
    Being a CEO can be a lonely business, even in the friendliest of organisations, and it’s natural to seek support from trustees who ‘get it’ but we must avoid any risk of the relationship becoming too ‘chummy’ and insufficiently scrutinising imho.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *