Appropriate name for board members

'Director' vs 'trustee'

I've been thinking a lot recently about the different titles used for board members around the world.

Here in Canada, for example, we call them directors. In other words, someone who serves on a board of directors. In the UK, they are called trustees. They have boards of trustees. Some countries use the terms interchangeably. Personally, I prefer trustees!

It may seem like a minor thing, but language matters and the titles we give (people) are important. They inform us of how a role, or the person filling it, “ought” to be viewed.

There is an almost instinctual reaction to certain titles that affect how people react to the title holder. Whether they are seen as approachable or distant, important or insignificant.

A director (I serve on a board of directors), is seen as powerful and business-like, cold, and financially-focused.

Capable, yes, but distant and hard, not at all like I am, or the other people on our board. But that is what comes to mind for the general public. Perhaps, it is because the same title is used extensively in the corporate world. And we wonder why we have trouble recruiting for boards.

I was talking with a young university student about the organization I belong to, and encouraging her to consider joining our board. She had excellent interpersonal skills, and her lived experience would have brought a wonderful new insight to the board’s discussions.

She declined. Despite my explanations, she found the role “too intimidating” and told me she didn’t have an MBA. I don’t even have undergrad degree! But she thought she'd needed one to be a director. That’s the power of language.

I see trustees, on the other hand, as people who care. They are given their responsibility as a trust. They are “trusted” with the responsibility for shepherding the organization, not just directing it. (The term) is less corporately-focused. It’s more approachable, more attainable, and there seems to be a closer connection between the word “trustee” and social impact organizations (at least in North American minds) than there is between “director” and the organizations.

Again, perhaps because of the common corporate use of the word “director,” and the idea that social impact organizations are all about caring, “trustee” sounds more caring than “director.”

I understand I'm coming at this from a North American perspective, and people in the UK or elsewhere may assign different connotations to the same words. That said, I can only talk about what I know and what I feel.

The language in the social impact sector is, in my opinion, outdated.

The world has moved on and the language we use just isn’t keeping pace. There are a number of words we use that might have made perfect sense 50 years ago, but just don’t fit anymore. The very word “volunteer” brings up an image in many people’s minds that doesn’t match the current reality.

“Director”, as a leader in the social impact sector, is one of those words—at least in my mind.

What do you think?

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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