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Trustee Interview: John Knight, Trustee at One YMCA

Posted on 23/07/2020 by Brigitte Stundner

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We interviewed John Knight who gave us his thoughts on being a charity Trustee for the first time and how covid-19 has affected his role and organisation.

How would you describe your current Trustee role?

As the sole Housing Trustee, I input strongly into the housing-related aspects of the charity, including chairing the Working Group for the redevelopment of a hostel. This group meets regularly to review and direct this scheme, which involves demolishing the current hostel and delivering an entirely new building as well as selling off part of the site. This my most intensive contribution but I also sit on the Resources Committee, and of course the main Trustee Board.

I have a vote - and a voice if I wish to use it - in most of the major governance decisions of the charity, including approving the budget, giving approval to particular bids for new commissioned services, staffing levels, the remuneration of the Chief Executive, etc. 

The Trustees collectively also work closely with the Executive to set the strategic direction of the charity. For example, we held a joint Awayday in November to set the vision for `Mission 25' - this is the overarching framework for the charity to double its impact in the next 5 years. A really creative session held on a Saturday at a hotel, this represents the most fun aspects of being a Trustee. 

This is combined with a drier set of responsibilities, which as a Trustee must be taken very seriously, around the financial viability of each area of operations and the charity as a whole, and the integrity of the organisation as reflected in policies, working practices, appointments, and our approach to diversity and inclusion. 

As a Board we also welcome more junior staff to our meetings for presentations on their areas of work and how they are delivering services to support vulnerable people. These items are great opportunities to learn about what the charity is doing on the ground, and to give the staff some feedback and some positive recognition for their efforts. 

As the charity deals with vulnerable households I also have mandatory training every year on Safeguarding. 

What interested you in joining a Board?

As a manager in local government I have delivered a number of projects as partnerships with the charity sector (including a homelessness prevention initiative with the West London YMCA) - through this I became interested  in how charities operate more widely, and where they fit into the overall public realm, especially in terms of housing services. 

When I was contacted and asked if I would like to be put forward for the role I felt it would be very useful experience and that it would be a great opportunity to make a contribution outside of my `day job'. 

What is your favourite part of being a Trustee?

At present I really enjoy chairing the Peartree Working Group, as it is a chance to be involved in a complex project which will deliver a greatly improved hostel.

What skills and experience did you want to bring to your current Trustee position? 

A strategic overview of housing, how to make partnerships work effectively, and an insight into how local councils operate and see the world. 

What skills did you hope to develop?

Working with senior colleagues outside a local government framework; applying the ethos of a specific charity to a set of housing policies; more understanding of how the charitable sector operates and develops.  

A Trustee role requires a significant amount of time for meetings, reviewing papers, and other events/activities. How did you balance your role with other commitments?

This can be challenging, and depends on balancing one's time. 

I need to make sure I have all the upcoming meetings clearly scheduled in my work calendar so that where necessary I can take leave to attend One YMCA meetings. Also need to set some time aside just before each meeting to review the agenda etc. The Working Group needs the most preparation - for the other Committees I make time in the few days before the meeting to read through all the papers, but it is not necessary for me to master all the details in every area, as it often is in paid senior management roles. 

How has your trustee role adapted in light of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Like all charities One YMCA has been seriously affected by the onset of Covid-19 and the associated lockdown. Our gyms have had to be closed, our other in-person services reduced or suspended, a number of staff furloughed on a temporary basis, and much of our overall activity transferred online in a very short period.  

It has been gratifying to see the organisation respond creatively and swiftly to these challenges. From a positive standpoint, we have been able to give great assistance to our Council partners by accommodating rough sleepers in our hostels as part of the Everyone In initiative; we have successfully transformed some of our family support and counselling services so that they have continued to operate online; and we are confident that because of the robust financial management which was already in place we can weather the storm financially. There has been a great ‘’can do’’ spirit among all staff as well as our partners and Trustees, and I believe we will be emerging stronger and still able to fulfil our `Mission 25' vision of doubling the charity's impact over the next 5 years.

As a trustee I have had some additional demands made on my time as a result of the pandemic, but the impact has been quite limited. The Everyone In initiative for example was Council-led, and required little input from trustees. Most of the other changes to services outlined below were similarly delivered by staff at the operational level. 

Meetings and other discussions with staff have taken slightly longer than usual, and there have been a number of updates, LinkedIn posts and other communications to keep up with - so overall the ‘’watching brief'’ element of the role has grown somewhat in the last few months but not to any onerous degree. 

What do you think are the characteristics of a great Trustee?

A wide strategic overview combined with a real passion for the charity's objectives, and the ability to work alongside colleagues so that the collective view reflects the wide range of expertise around the table.

What motivates you as an individual?

I am passionate about excellent housing services and what they can do to help some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. I also really enjoy the ‘’buzz’’ of good collaboration to solve complex problems. 

What advice would you give to someone looking for their first Trustee role?

Choose an organisation whose overall vision you share, and look for a role to which you can bring a credible skill set. Make it clear that you have something specific to offer, and not just a general wish to ‘’give something back’’. 

How did you get into contact with TPP?

In my case TPP made contact first when seeking candidates on behalf of One YMCA. 

How would you describe TPP in one word?

Professional! 

Would you recommend TPP’s services to someone seeking a Trustee role?

Certainly