In my previous life as a City solicitor, “trustee” conjured up images of dusty third-year law textbooks and complex offshore tax structuring. A career intermission as a graduate student at New York University added a bit more nuance to that understanding, but it wasn’t until I joined Big Society Capital that I really began to see what being a trustee meant. Even during the interview process, I was reminded about the organisation’s trilingual approach: being comfortable with the private, public, and social sectors.
Of course, very few people join Big Society Capital perfectly fluent in all three languages. The major gap for me was in understanding the perspective of the social enterprises and charities who receive investment from intermediaries we work with and are ultimately the ones delivering impact to help improve the lives of people. I set a goal to develop this understanding – and I went about it by speaking to these frontline organisations at events and every other opportunity I could get.
A different avenue presented itself a few months later when my friend, Caroline, a Senior Lecturer in International Organisations and Security (or “Professor of War”, as I liked to call her) at Regent’s University, asked me to join the board of Professors Without Borders, the non-profit she had co-founded to address inequalities in higher education. This was a small, young organisation – we were still in the middle of our application for charitable status! – but was already achieving disproportionate impact by arranging for volunteer academics to teach summer courses at their partner universities in developing countries.
A few months afterwards, much like proverbial buses, I was asked to join the board of Global Dialogue, a charity that provides a platform for independent human rights funders to collaborate and a home for innovative human rights and social change initiatives. I had come across Global Dialogue, and its dynamic CEO, Esther, several years previously for a pro bono project and had kept in touch throughout my career-switching phase.
Through these two trusteeships, I certainly did improve my understanding of the world of charities. I got first-hand experience of things I knew already in theory: how resource-constrained charities are, the importance of one or two key people, the different directions an organisation is often being pulled by its many stakeholders. These are all vital for my role at Big Society Capital because it provides context for what might otherwise be abstract concepts. But perhaps the most interesting learning is one I didn’t expect.
In my previous career, my role was very much advisory. Clients would present their problem or aims, we would suggest a course of action, and it was up to them to decide whether to go ahead or not. While being a trustee still retains some of that advisory character, as you try to share helpful pieces of wisdom with the senior management team, you are also often called on to make some fundamental organisational decisions, from developing a response to the Black Lives Matter movement to approving an exciting new project that could help the charity become more financially sustainable.
At Big Society Capital, a huge part of our job is about making better investment decisions, to manage our financial return and maximise our impact. Serving as a trustee gives you a lot of experience very quickly of high-stakes decision-making, because of how stretched decision-makers already are and how important the impact of those decisions can be on people who are reliant on support services. This would be reason enough, let alone the more nuanced and deeper understanding and empathy for charities that you develop, for me to think everyone in the social investment sector should be a trustee.