Ian Adams has combined a career in Communications for the BBC, NHS and Government with 20 years’ service as a Local Councillor, Charity Trustee and NED. He sat down with Jennifer Horan for our fourth edition of ‘Trustees in Conversation’ to impart his wisdom and insight on what it means to be a trustee, share some of the associated challenges, and speak about what inspires Ian to continue his work in the social justice sector.

Today Ian is employed as Director of Membership and Stakeholder Engagement at NHS Resolution, the legal arm of the health service. His previous employed roles include Executive Director positions at Becta and Hillingdon Primary Care Trust. Ian is also currently Vice-Chair of Single Homeless Project and a Trustee of Unite Foundation and London Handel Festival.

Ian is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Leadership Fellow of St George’s House, Windsor. In 2017/18, he served as Lord Mayor of Westminster. Ian is a registered mentor with the NHS Leadership Academy, Civil Service LGBT+ Mentoring Scheme and Government Communication Service. He holds two degrees, including an MBA awarded with Distinction from the University of Bradford.

When did you become a charity trustee, and how did you find your trustee roles?

I served on several local charity boards during my time as a local authority councillor in the City of Westminster. When I decided to stand down as a councillor after 20 years of service, this presented opportunities for me to seek out further trustee roles, building on my work in the social justice space. One such role was at Unite Foundation, the charitable arm of Unite Students, which provides free university accommodation to care leavers and family estranged students at 26 universities in England and Scotland.  I am also a trustee and vice-chair of Single Homeless Project (a London-wide homelessness charity) and a board member of a national equality and inclusion non-profit consultancy.

Some of my trustee roles I saw advertised; others I was approached about through specialist recruitment firms, including Peridot Partners. I can understand that for small and very local charities word-of-mouth trustee recruitment is widespread; however, I think it’s important for larger charities to appoint their trustees through open competition, as I think this is the best way to get a good, diverse mix of experience around the board table.

“It’s important to have opportunities when joining a charity board to ask lots of questions – while remembering there are no right or wrong questions to bring up.”

What interested you in becoming a trustee and what does being a trustee involve?

I find that serving as a charity trustee allows me to make a difference in things I care about.  I am fortunate to have always had a roof over my head. But I know how being homeless can blight people’s lives, from damaging their health and wellbeing to lowering their employment prospects – which I’ve seen in my own community.  That’s why I serve on the boards of charities that offer accommodation to care leavers and services to homeless people, for example.

I am also a vocal LGBT+ advocate. Social inclusion is a really important factor behind all my trustee roles.

At Unite Foundation, as well as serving as a trustee on the board, I am also a member of the governance committee, which reviews the charity’s policies and related procedures to make sure they are fit for purpose and support the efficient and effective delivery of the charity’s services on behalf of our beneficiaries – in this case, university students who are care-experienced or family estranged. It’s the breadth of topics we discuss at our main board meetings that I really enjoy, from monitoring financial performance and the risk register to thinking strategically about future growth opportunities or a new marketing campaign.

What qualities do you think are important for those in a trustee role?

It’s important to have opportunities when joining a charity board to ask lots of questions – while remembering there are no right or wrong questions to bring up. I think having a curious mind is essential; not being afraid to ask questions about how the charity is performing and serving the needs of its clients.  Teamwork is also critical, not only with regards to your working alongside other trustees but in supporting the executive team who are accountable for the day-to-day running of the organisation.

Give as much time as you can to get to know the people who run the charity and deliver its services on the ground. That’s why I really enjoy visiting frontline services to see for myself the impact that a charity is having on the ground and to speak directly to frontline staff who, more than anyone, is the public face of a charity.

Above all else, I think it’s essential for trustees to share the values of the charity they are serving.

“First and foremost, you must have an interest in what the organisation does, ideally reflecting your own personal values.”

What are the challenges and benefits of being a charity trustee?

Joining charity boards during the pandemic has meant it’s taken longer to get to know the people you are working alongside, both other trustees and the full-time staff. That said, online meetings can help to keep you in touch with what’s going on in real-time, complementing board meetings and awaydays.

The best part is definitely having opportunities to see the impact that your organisation has on the ground through meeting frontline staff and clients or beneficiaries. For me, this presents many learning opportunities and I enjoy reflecting on my varied experiences, especially when I can see the difference a charity is making on the ground. One question I often ask staff and clients when I meet them is – what key messages should I take back from my visit to share with the rest of the board?

What tips would you give to potential trustees looking to find the right position for them?

First and foremost, you must have an interest in what the organisation does, ideally reflecting your own personal values. Some organisations specify trustee skills (e.g. finance, law, marketing); however, for me, it’s about thinking broadly about how you can make a positive difference to an organisation through your wider experience. And importantly make sure you understand the time commitment involved in being a charity trustee.

I’ve been appointed to most of my trustee roles through specialist recruitment firms that understand the specific needs of the charities they work with. Beyond that, I would suggest speaking with current trustees of similar organisations you are interested in joining, asking them to share their experiences. If your application gets taken forward, then it’s advisable to have a direct conversation with the Chair and/or CEO to ask how they see your skills and experience adding value around the board table.