Recruiting trustees - Museums Association

Recruiting trustees

The challenges of attracting new and diverse board members
Profile image for Rebecca Atkinson
Rebecca Atkinson
Consistency on a board is important, but for many museums long-standing trustees can be a burden as well as a benefit.

“Boards should not be static – they need to remain relevant, which means change,” says Andrew Lovett, the director and chief executive of the Black Country Living Museum (BCLM) in Dudley. “If the time comes when a trustee is still on a board for self-serving reasons, rather than in order to do the best for the organisation, then it’s time for them to step down.”

When Lovett joined BCLM six years ago, he set about revitalising the board. The introduction of fixed terms (three years with the option to extend for a further three years) and tightening the museum's articles of association so that trustees who miss a certain number of meetings are asked to leave, has helped reinforce the point that serving on the board is not a right.

“These changes have encouraged greater self-awareness among our trustees; they understand that everyone has a life span and that it is important to refresh the make-up of the board,” Lovett says.

Succession planning

Having fixed terms can be an advantage when it comes to attracting new trustees, because it makes it clear that volunteering as one won’t be a lifetime commitment.

One scenario that consultant Hilary McGowan says she regularly sees is museums with long-serving (and ageing) trustees struggling to recruit new members.

“Museums need to take a long, hard look at themselves and try to understand how they are perceived and what might be putting people off,” she says. “For example, if the chair has been at the organisation for 35-plus years, then potential trustees might see it as a lifetime obligation that will take over all their free time. Or they might think the board is a bit of a clique or club.”

However, it’s important to get the length of term right – too long as it can put people off, but too short and the museum can suffer.

McGowan says it can take 12 months for a new trustee to “find their feet” in an organisation, and two years to become really useful.  

Fixed terms can present a challenge if lots of trustees are recruited at the same time, because it can mean a mass exodus when the terms come to an end. Multiple trustees standing down at the same time can also be an issue when large-scale projects, such as redevelopments, come to an end.

“Managing succession planning is one of the biggest issues for organisations,” says Tony Butler, the executive director of Derby Museums Trust.

Making trustees aware of their responsibility towards the museum, even after their term ends, is vital. Many trustees will actively recruit new board members as they approach the end of their term or decide to step down. 


But when it comes to recruiting new board members, a museum cannot solely rely on existing trustees to identify successors.

“It’s really important that the opportunity is open to everyone, otherwise you just get the same kind of people,” Lovett says.  “Museums should put as much time and effort into the recruitment of trustees as they would staff – it’s the most important strategic decision that an organisation can make.”

This means advertising positions as widely as possible. However, museums that advertise positions through their own networks, such as newsletters and Friends groups, run the risk of reaching “the usual suspects” who have the time and inclination to become trustees.

The Atkinson in Southport has a development board to support its fundraising activity, so identifying the right people was an important part of director Emma Anderson’s recruitment strategy: “When I started at the Atkinson [in 2013] I made sure I introduced myself to lots of people.

"Then, as the development of the arts centre got underway, I went back to the people I had met who were engaged and had experience of governance to see if they wanted to be part of it.”

A direct approach can also help museums recruit trustees who may not be actively engaged with the museum, or lack the confidence to put themselves forward for positions.

“At Derby Museums Trust we’ve now got proper rotation [of trustees] in place and we are also moving away from just relying on open adverts, and instead identifying people who we think would make good trustees,” Butler says.

Despite this, he acknowledges that more work is needed. Age is a particular issue for many museum boards. At Derby the youngest trustee is 58, while the oldest is in his 70s. 


Younger trustees may bring different perspectives and skills, but many museums find them hard to recruit.

More often than not, the people most able to give up their time are older individuals, who may have retired or started to wind down their professional lives. “You have to accept that young people haven’t necessarily got the time,” says Adrian Green, the director of the Salisbury Museum in Wiltshire.

Continuity on a board is also important, and there is often a perception that younger people are more likely to move away from an area, or stand down due to changing circumstances, compared to their older counterparts.

The diversification of boards to include young trustees, women, and people from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds, is a growing concern in the sector. Arts Council England is due to publish a report later this year looking at the benefits, challenges and opportunities for the diversification of boards.

Depending on the role of the board, diversity might be less important than other attributes. The Atkinson has a development board that helps the organisation fundraise, and Anderson says “gravitas and experience” are the two most important qualities she looks for in a board member.

“I’m a great believer in the importance of diversity, and we have people from all walks of life and backgrounds on our board,” says Sue Shave, the director of the Chiltern Open Air Museum in Buckinghamshire. “Diversity comes when people have a range of different experiences, and it’s those experiences that we are after. The challenge can be when people don’t understand the museum world – it can be a big adjustment for some people.”

Key qualities

Recruiting new trustees isn’t about ticking boxes; instead it’s an opportunity to strengthen the board by bringing in new skills. And for trustees, the role isn’t just about attending board meetings as often it’s what happens outside of a meeting that is really important.

“It’s crucial that trustees are dynamic and passionate, and are prepared to actually do something,” says Anderson. “Trustees are part of our brand.”

Museums often aim to achieve a balanced board with plenty of active board members as well as one or two “figureheads” who bring connections, or are able to act on an advisory basis.

The Salisbury Museum has a skills-based board, with trustees taking responsibility for different areas such as fundraising and charity law. Green is currently looking to recruit trustees with marketing and learning backgrounds.

“We are constantly auditing and discussing the make-up of our board – you can’t recruit just to fill spaces, they have got to be able to bring something to the museum,” he says.

As well as having specific skills, Green looks for trustees who are public spirited and love heritage and culture.

But museums must be clear why they are recruiting someone and what role that individual will have in the organisation. The BCLM has produced a document for new trustees, which explains what is expected of them and what they will get out of the experience in return.

Some museums assign trustees to a particular area of work that fits with their individual skills or background. “People feel more comfortable when they have a job to do,” McGowan says.

Some museums are increasingly looking to appoint heritage professionals to their boards. Lovett says that as well as providing additional sector experience and insight, a heritage professional can challenge the other trustees and the director.

“Museum directors must not be afraid to appoint people who are cleverer than them,” he adds. “If you’re not prepared to be challenged, then you’re building weakness into the organisation.”

Although some museums may be concerned that having a director of another museum on their board may present a conflict of interest, especially around areas such as fundraising, Derby Museums Trust’s Tony Butler believes they can offer invaluable support, experience and contacts to the executive team.

“If you do have a museum professional on your board then it’s good to have someone who has recently retired from a senior position, or who is working at an organisation that is very different to yours,” Butler says.

As well as serving on boards, heritage professionals with experience of managing and recruiting boards can be an invaluable source of advice.

McGowan recommends that museums looking to recruit new board members look for examples of success elsewhere – especially museums that are a similar to them in size or collection type, or operate in the same region.

Anderson agrees: “There is lots of information out there [on creating boards] but what really worked for me was speaking to Jim Forrester, then the director at Imperial War Museum North. He gave me brilliant advice on who I wanted as a trustee – and who I didn’t want.”

Leave a comment

You must be signed in to post a comment.


Join the Museums Association today to read this article

Over 12,000 museum professionals have already become members. Join to gain access to exclusive articles, free entry to museums and access to our members events.