Marie Nixon is currently Acting Theatre Director of the Edinburgh Playhouse, Director of Sunderland Empire Theatre, Director of We Make Culture, and Trustee on numerous boards including the MAC Trust, Sunderland Culture, and Sunderland Business Improvement District (BID).
Previously, Marie worked for Arts Council England, was a fellow of the Clore Leadership Programme, and both a CEO and a Direction of Oversight Board Member for Sunderland Students’ Union and NUS Charitable Services.
With a wealth of sector experience and trusteeship expertise, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to speak to her.
In part one of this special 3-part instalment of the Arts, Heritage, and Culture ‘Conversations with’ series, Rebekah sat down with Marie to discuss her trusteeship journey and what the role has involved as a younger trustee.
Watch part one of the interview with Marie here.
‘…a good trustee will always seek support and will not do anything too radical without knowing they’ve had the advice that they need to make the right decision.’
Can you tell me a bit about your personal experience of being a trustee and where your trusteeship journey has taken you?
I started being around trusteeship when I worked for Arts Council England, as I was working with arts organisations and their boards. I was inspired by the tremendous people I encountered who gave their time freely because they were so invested in both the organisations and the health of the arts and culture sector in general.
The first trusteeship role I held and still hold to this day was with a music, art, and culture organisation in Sunderland called the MAC Trust. Whilst I was initially invited, I wanted to join because I was on board with their vision for what they wanted to create in the city of Sunderland. Furthermore, the trust aligned with my values — it seemed like a perfect fit for me and was a brilliant introduction.
I’ve spent a significant period with Students’ Unions. In terms of trusteeship, I found SU’s to be incredibly fulfilling. One of the most enjoyable yet challenging elements was nurturing and guiding new trustees, younger trustees, and those with lived experiences. I particularly enjoyed being able to remove some of the mysticism around what governance is, what it isn’t and seeing people flourish in the role.
As a trustee, you can make a massive difference to an organisaton without getting involved in nitty-gritty operational matters — you can steer it by sharing your experience with the staff team to help them to fulfil the needs of the organisation.
I think for anyone remotely interested in making a difference in an area that they feel passionate about, it’s a brilliant way to get involved with your favourite charities or your favourite areas of expertise.
Thinking back to your first experience of being a trustee, what did you learn and what skills did you gain?
It gave me experience in a different kind of collaboration, which is non-transactional, and it sharpened my strategic thinking.
Early on, I learned how to best express my ideas and get my message across — I also discovered when to keep my own council and when to share with the broader group.
I found being a trustee has been incredible in terms of the networks that you develop and the different people that you form cordial professional relationships with whom you probably wouldn’t have come across before.
I found the key learning was realising I was there to support the staff team and help them be the best that they can be — so the organisation can be the best that it can be. Even though you are giving your time and you’re there as a volunteer, it’s not about you. It is about steering an organisation to do exactly what it needs to do!
Lastly, I think you see people at their absolute best in that environment as well which is an incredible thing to see.
‘I think for anyone who’s remotely interested in making a difference in an area that they feel passionate about, it’s a really brilliant way to get involved with your favourite charities or your favourite areas of expertise.’
For anyone thinking about becoming a trustee, could you give us an overview of what being a younger trustee has involved?
It’s a lot about advocacy and understanding what an organisation is trying to achieve. It’s also about thinking about where you can best apply yourself to be the most effective — may that be through your networks or professional specialisms.
When an organisation is doing well, it’s enjoyable but when things go awry, it’s the point where you have to get your hands dirty — and I think that’s when you can feel the weight of responsibility of trusteeship. At that point, it is down to you as you’re legally responsible for that organisation.
It is time to step up, take exactly the right advice that you think you need, and don’t think you need to know it all yourself. Seek advice and then work together in often smaller groups to find a resolution.
Whilst those situations are never fun, they are often an opportunity where you can make the most difference and do the best in terms of preserving the organisation, its reputation, and the faith and trust its employees have put into that charity.
Your actions can be essential in that situation and again though, I just would emphasise that if you were a first-time trustee and you thought that sounded a bit daunting, a good trustee will always seek support and will not do anything too radical without knowing they’ve had the advice that they need to make the right decision.
Rebekah Abbott is our Head of Arts, Heritage and Culture Appointments. With over 20 years’ experience in the sector, including having founded her own music-based not for profit, Luminosa Music, Rebekah has a first-hand understanding of the importance that having the right leaders in the right roles at the right time, can have on the success of an organisation.