Executive Director Kate Denby shares a case study on recruiting young trustees to Northern Stage’s board.

 

Context

Northern Stage is the largest producing theatre in the North East of England and an Arts Council Band 3 NPO, based on the city-centre campus of Newcastle University.  As a registered charity with industry-leading facilities and know-how, we support creative people of all backgrounds and abilities to bring the most entertaining, surprising and imaginative stories to life. 

Our home in Newcastle is an inspirational and creative place where everyone is welcomed.  Through our programme of activities, we encourage and facilitate young people to be agents of their own futures.  We do this inherently in the work we create and the professional practices we use to create it, but we could see that the voices of young people were not represented within our organisational governance. We knew that as an inclusive Board, our governance would be enhanced by increasing our diversity, and bringing young trustees would add to the richness of the conversation and enable us to better serve our audiences. 

Board Chair Simon Elliott and I attended the Art of Leadership conference in March 2018, where we heard Leon Ward speak about his experience of being a young trustee and the Young Trustees Guide he co-authored for the Charities Aid Foundation.  The Roundhouse publication Guided by Young Voices also contributed to our learning, and helped us build a framework of recruitment that would work for us.   We set a goal of appointing two young trustees at our AGM in September 2019.

Planning

In January 2019, a small working group chaired by trustee Natalia Blagburn developed the parameters of our search:

  • Our definition of young people for this purpose would be aged between 18 and 25
  • Two young trustees would be appointed, so that they could support each other as they took on this new role
  • The common factor all trustees needed regardless of age was to have a passion and commitment to performing arts – as an audience member, participant, maker or practitioner
  • Beyond that we were seeking young people who were aligned with the mission and values of Northern Stage
  • Trusteeship would be the same regardless of age – a 4-year appointment, with the same responsibilities as other members

We were sensitive about language, particularly at the early stage, because we were concerned that terms like Trustee, Board Member and Governance might represent barriers. We recognised that the role of a trustee would be new to many young people, and we needed to describe and show it in a way that would not put them off.  What and how we communicated would be key to attracting people.  We agreed our process would be as experiential as possible and stripped of any unnecessary formality.  An important measure of success was for every young person coming into contact with Northern Stage through this process to feel more connected and positive about Northern Stage regardless of outcome.

 

The process

  • Call out

In early February 2019 we issued the call-out – a 2-minute video featuring Board Chair Simon Elliott and Executive Director Kate Denby talking about Northern Stage, about being a trustee and inviting people to a workshop to find out more. The video would be shared across our social media, and we hoped the personal and friendly approach would encourage trust in the invitation.  Board and staff members who worked with target specific groups – in our Young Company, and at our local university and colleges – made direct approaches to raise awareness.

 

At the end of March – before the University and college term ended! – young people interested in the opportunity were invited to attend an Expression of Interest Workshop hosted by current Board and senior staff, where they could find out more about what was involved in being a trustee and what the process would be for applying.  The workshop involved small group discussions between attendees and board members, so the young people could get a feel for what being on a board meant. After the session attendees were able to take a way a pack of information, which consolidated what had been discussed in written form; the pack was also available online for people who couldn’t attend the workshop. Download info pack.

 

  • Application Period

Those young people now definitely interested in applying for the board were invited to submit a short written or video application.  Any young people who couldn’t attend the workshop were invited to arrange an informal chat with a member of the board. Applications were reviewed by the Board and Executive Director and a shortlist drawn up.

 

  • Shadowing a Board Meeting

The shortlisted candidates were invited to observe our Board meeting in June 2019.  They were sent papers in advance, and met with the Executive Director and Chair before the meeting for a briefing, where the process, format and agenda was explained. The Chair facilitated the meeting to ensure the candidates had the best opportunity to understand proceedings – asking the Executive to explain context prior to each agenda item, and pausing to explain jargon – and at relevant points invited comments or questions from the candidates.

 

  • Interviews

During June and July, the shortlisted candidates were invited to a meet with two Board members for a more formal conversation about what they had learned through the process, their interest and the skills, experience they would bring to the Board.  In August board members met to discuss the candidates and agreed to invite two candidates to join the Board in September 2019.

 

  • Appointment

In September 2019 two trustees were appointed: Carys Rose Thomas, a 22-year old recent Newcastle University graduate, and 24-year old Danielle Oliver, an aspiring producer - you can read our announcement press release here. At their first meeting, Chair Simon Elliott welcomed them and affirmed that they would now be simply referred to as ‘trustees’, as they had the same status as every other member of the Board. 

 

Outcome

Delivering this process required the active participation of the whole Board and Executive, and was as much a learning opportunity for the existing team as it was for the new trustees.  We had to reflect on the core values we looked for in trustees, and the benefits of diversity in life experience alongside practical and professional skills.  We also had to consider how we had to adapt our own practice and process as a Board to welcome new voices – the language we used, our listening skills.

At each stage the young people were invited to reaffirm their interest and given an opportunity to withdraw if they felt it wasn’t the right fit for them at that time.  We had hoped to attract 20 people to the workshop, leading to 10 applications, from which 6 would be shortlisted and 2 trustees appointed.  In fact, we had 24 attendees and 12 applications, and we were impressed by the passion and interest all the applicants expressed.

Feedback from the young people throughout the process has been very positive, regardless of how far they progressed.  Many expressed that they had learnt more about what was involved in being a trustee – and for some, now was not the right time for them to commit to such a role.  Others said that they could tell that this wasn’t a tokenistic approach, that the Board were genuine in their desire for the contribution of young people.

We are continuing to look at ways we can enable young people to have their voice heard throughout Northern Stage, and look forward to the perspective our new trustees will bring to our Board. 

 

Kate Denby, October 2019

Photography Toper McGrillis