Research carried out last year by Trustees Unlimited found that 20% of trustees said their charity board lacked a diverse range of skills, and over half believed that a more diverse board would enhance their charity's effectiveness.
Charity boards have long been criticised for lacking young trustees. According to research released by the Charity Commission in 2010, only 0.5% of charity trustees were aged 18-24. The report, called a Breath of Fresh Air, also found the mean age of a charity trustee was 57.
Neal Green, senior policy adviser at the Charity Commission, says it has not gathered statistics on the number of young people on boards since 2010, but that involvement in Trustees' Week has been very encouraging. "There's a sense of a bit of a buzz," he says. "Some charities are starting to have more diverse boards, but not many."
But is it really that important for charities to include young people on their boards? And, if so, how can charities encourage this?
"Good board diversity is part of being governed effectively," says Green. "Having young people on the board helps you better understand those people in society. It's one important aspect of diversity of skills and experience." He explains that part of good decision-making is about being properly informed; if the board has a mix of backgrounds and points of view, then a more rounded decision can be made.
Lindsay Driscoll, a governance consultant, agrees. "Young people come with different approaches and suggestions, and they will challenge assumptions," she says. "The decisions are only as good as the input from the range of people."
But she says finding and appointing young people is not easy. "You have to make the effort to work out where people are going to find you – it could be advertising through social media," she says. "You may have to look at recruitment practices and how you operate, but you're going to have to make an effort, and not all boards are prepared to do that."
Green suggests using organisations such as the National Union of Students or local Scout groups as sources of enthusiastic young people. And he says that once they are appointed, keeping new, young trustees engaged is crucial. "You need to think about giving them support with all the technical stuff, and providing them with mentoring," he says. "And remember to value what they say. It can be a culture shock to have new trustees on the board."
Alex Swallow, founder of Young Charity Trustees, agrees that it is important young trustees are not just appointed as a "token gesture". "Doing an induction and making sure someone on the board can serve as their mentor is important," he says, adding that young people may need training and support with things such as charity finance, but that this training could be beneficial to other trustees at the same time. "It's quite a clever way of introducing new training for the board, as it doesn't make others feel self-conscious about a lack of skills," he says.
When Amy Foan joined the British Red Cross's board in 2010 as a young trustee, having been elected when she was 25, she says she felt daunted, but the effort made to welcome her helped.
"I lacked confidence when I first started, as all the other trustees had a lot more experience," she says. "But the Red Cross is very welcoming and everyone was very excited about me joining." She says she had a lot of training during her induction and the chair would always ask what she thought during meetings.
Caroline Leighton, chief de cabinet for the British Red Cross, says having young trustees on its board means it can better engage with young volunteers, who will shape the organisation in the future. "Young trustees provide a fresh perspective; they have a different outlook and experience, especially in areas such as new technology," she says. "Around 20% of our volunteers are under 25, so it's essential for us to provide younger people with a voice on our board."
Damien Clarkson, who became a trustee of the Young Achievers Trust in 2010, aged 25, says charities need to promote the benefits of being a trustee to young people. "They could promote things like all the connections you can make and the experience you can get," he says. "It can help to build networks and can be good for your career. It's a good thing to understand and is a big responsibility. I now run my own business and being on a board really helped me with that."
And he says that as long as existing trustees are properly briefed on the role of a young trustee that joins the board, charities will not regret taking them on. "It needs to be a slightly different role and others need to understand why they are there," he says. "Whatever you learn from it,, you won't regret it. As you get older you get set in your thought patterns – young people may throw up something very interesting. You may learn something that could really help the organisation."