Understanding potential chairs’ motivations ‘crucial’ to addressing recruitment challenges

13 Jun 2024 News

By HBS / adobe

Charities need to better understand the motivations of potential chairs, especially those of the younger generations, if they are to tackle recruitment challenges, according to new research. 

The Future Charity Chair: A research project, released yesterday by Bayes Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness, surveyed 61 chairs and 23 support organisation representatives from charities in England and Wales between July 2023 and February 2024. 

It reported that the pipeline of future chairs is “a real concern” and that charities need to “look harder at how to open up boards, who their future chairs could be and where they will be found”. 

The report says that the role of chairs is a demanding leadership one that should be positioned as aspirational, but that more future-focused support is needed as many struggle to look ahead.

Barriers to engagement

The report identifies time pressures, level of responsibility and a lack of diversity, equality and inclusion on boards as potential barriers to people considering a charity governance role.

Chairs interviewed for the research said they saw the future as “increasingly volatile, complex and uncertain”, acknowledging the toll on those in positions of leadership.

Many agreed that there has been an “intensification” of the chair role, which has become “more demanding, time-consuming and stressful”.

“Participants said and commented that they expected this trend to continue in the future,” the report says.

“[They] described navigating tensions, dilemmas and crises; they noted that it isn’t unusual for a chair to be brought in to address a crisis. 

“Some described it as a ‘balancing act’ where they were continuously weighing up, for example, risk management and innovation; or managing today and planning the future. 

“For all the above reasons, participants commented on the way the role has been inappropriately promoted in the past as being ‘just four meetings a year’ or as a retirement opportunity.”

Understanding future chairs

Participants said that creating a pipeline of future chairs requires a good understanding of why people would want to get involved, with some feeling that it is crucial to understand what younger generations value.

They cited generational differences in terms of people’s expectations concerning work-life balance, accountability, organisational integrity and diversity which are already influencing patterns of involvement. 

While younger people see becoming a chair as a means to develop their careers, the report says that the lack of time and availability is perceived to be more of an issue for them.

“Creating a pipeline of future chairs was also seen as being dependent on having a good understanding of what might stop people from putting themselves forward for the role,” the report says.

The report says there is “a need to consider reward and recognition in broader terms than just remuneration” and an opportunity for current chairs to “encourage a collective and open board mindset to seek out the right talent for their organisation”. 

It made a series of recommendations including charities having a rigorous recruitment process when recruiting their chairs and an inclusive and equitable interview process to ensure diversity.

Likewise, charities should promote the role of chair as “aspirational and fulfilling, making adverts less overwhelming and more appealing, and being open about what the role entails and how people can expect to be supported”.

Other recommendations include supporting chairs to develop foresight skills, trialling flexible governance models and offering mentoring programmes.

Risk of increasing number of ‘ill-suited candidates’

The report warns that charities could risk fewer people coming forward or increase the number of “ill-suited candidates” if they fail to pay attention to the future pipeline of chairs.

“Given the considerable number of charities and the resulting demand for chairs, this would have significant consequences for both the sustainability and the impact of charities and the charity sector,” the report says. 

“To achieve a healthy flow of chairs in the future, the sector will need to look harder at who those chairs could be and where to find them; the kinds of pathways into the role that would work for them; and the different ways of supporting them.”

Alex Skailes, director of the Centre for Charity Effectiveness, said: “The leadership role of the charity chair has intensified, and this rewarding but demanding voluntary role faces greater challenges than we had ever anticipated. 

“A charity chair cannot be a champion of their organisation if they don’t have the proper support in place, and our research has found that charity chairs are frequently stretched thin. 

“Chairs need enhanced access to a menu of support that is near-term and future focused, if they are to start to meet the demands of tomorrow, today.”

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