Blaze began as a London 2012 Olympic Legacy project, operating cultural programmes that were led by young people from conception to completion. In 2018 Blaze applied to become a registered charity, led by myself, founding Director Matt Wilde, aged 24. As Blaze supports young people’s involvement in decision-making at all levels of the cultural sector, it was important that we led by example and put this at the heart of the organisation. We interrogated what we meant by ‘youth-led’ and formed a constitution which stated that young people aged under 30 would lead Blaze Arts CIO at all levels, including the board of Trustees. We visioned a three-year strategic plan aiming to develop the next generation of cultural producers.
CASE STUDY: Young People Take the Lead in Governance
By Matt Wilde
Discover the story of how young people are taking the lead in the governance of Blaze Arts, a registered charity based in the North West England.
“Registering to become a charity gave us the opportunity to explore our organisational values and align them to decisions about our governance and how young people could take the lead at all levels.” - Matt Wilde, Director
We set ourselves the challenge of appointing a minimum of 51% young people to the board of Trustees. As the first arts organisation to do this (as far as we’re aware) there were no blueprints or examples across the sector that we could take inspiration from. So we followed our intuition with support from experts to guide the process.
From speaking to other arts organisations and the Charity Commission, we knew there would be many preconceptions about the skills young people can contribute to governance. But we were confident that our asset-based approach would provide Blaze’s board with the new perspectives and insights that would support its development. We also knew we might have to be flexible when setting meeting dates and venues that work for everyone, due to people’s varied work schedules, and utilise video chat when needed. We didn’t have any major concerns about embarking on this journey - we were simply excited for the opportunity because it was a process that felt natural to us.
"As a newly registered charity we had the opportunity to be agile in our decision-making and creatively respond to issues that are reflective of the communities we work with. This is the ethos of every project we run, and it’s what motivates every one of us to develop Blaze for the future." - Matt Wilde, Director
Our next step was to share our vision and launch a call out which aimed to reach potential young Trustees. We ran a social media campaign with concise messages and language that wouldn’t put people off – something we’ve often seen. We welcomed audio, video or written expressions of interest and offered drop ins to discuss the opportunity. We highlighted the legal responsibility of being a Trustee, including links to the Charity Commission’s website in the material and explaining why it was so important that young people’s voices are amplified at a strategic level as they are so under-represented on boards.
We had 55 applications and countless emails and DMs on social media, demonstrating young people’s appetite and readiness to take on the role. Five new trustees were appointed in 2019 and soon after we also advertised for a co-chair of the board.
The founding board members wanted to shape the way we run board meetings and establish a process that was bespoke to Blaze. During this process, we also enquired into the ways in which we could make decisions effectively whilst ensuring every Trustee’s voice was heard. As a new and small charity, we needed our process to be agile and to utilise the expertise and skills of every board member.
A year later, we continue to try new approaches to running meetings. We have adopted one standing item where someone presents a challenge at the beginning of a meeting which is considered by the rest of the board through a facilitated discussion. This allows everyone’s voice to be heard and motivates the board to take action on topics that truly matter to them.
“Board meetings at Blaze are a particularly democratic and safe space where everyone’s voices can be heard. I feel confident to offer ideas and know they will be received and treated with as much respect as any other person in the room. It’s a collaborative and welcoming setting wherein the future of Blaze is always at the heart.” - Joe Clegg, Trustee
My top tips for anyone exploring youth-led governance:
Governance should be exciting for anyone, regardless of age. It’s within a board’s power to enable engaging and creative meetings, rather than sticking to the way things have always been done.
Focus on the assets of each Trustee and don’t assume that age is always directly correlated to experience. I believe we can all contribute meaningfully to governance and strategy.
When recruiting Trustees, I advise putting in the work to develop a social media campaign and meet with as many people and groups as possible to attract a diverse range of people to the role. Consider provision for applications in different formats such as video or audio recordings and drop in meetings.
As a result, the diversity of our organisation has increased. Six out of 11 Trustees are under the age of 30 and the board is more representative of the communities we work with. Our decision making is now more informed because it is led by a diverse range of voices who reflect the young people who engage in Blaze’s programmes.
Another positive outcome that emerged was our decision to appoint a co-chair of the board of Trustees. Whilst this had always been our plan, the successful appointment of young Trustees gave us the confidence to pursue the co-chair role sooner than expected, in order to create equity in the decision making at chair level. The co-chair will begin this year and we look forward to continue exploring how this model will work best.
This is our story, with a unique set of circumstances that led us to this point. Every organisations’ journey will be different, but they have the power to embrace genuine representation from those they work with to ensure their work is relevant and has the greatest possible impact.
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