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Becoming the change: bringing anti-racism into the boardroom

If you want your charity to prioritise equity, diversity and inclusion, the work starts with you as a trustee

The revised charity governance code of December 2020 highlighted the responsibility of the board to be well versed in all things Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion. I’m sure there are boards up and down the country asking the question ‘where do we start?’

The obvious place is to reflect on the visible diversity of our board members, and much of the conversation and focus of energy has been on the recruitment of trustees of colour. But if we are to genuinely put EDI at the heart of governance, we must take a more systemic view of all aspects of charity life. We need to be prepared to interrogate all our systems for fairness, inclusivity, and potential bias.

Learning EDI skills

It’s now the business of every trustee to be informed about how racism – whether overt, every day or structural – impacts the work that their charity does and how it affects decisions about funding, service provision and charity priorities. There’s a responsibility to know more about its influence on the work life of employees and the experience of service users. Fundamentally, trustees should be questioning if charity objects are being met as inclusively as we’d want.

It’s a new string to the bow of trusteeship that asks us to foster different skills and acquire new knowledge. It’s not enough to think that by recruiting trustees that look different to us that the work will be done. The work starts with us, and for many, there is a need to grow our confidence as well as competence to navigate the world of EDI effectively. It feels highly likely that moving forward, EDI competence will be a sought-after skill in future trustees and the work to be fit for purpose needs to start now.

Changing viewpoints

In the work that I do, I firmly believe that the required confidence and competence is available to all of us, but it begins with a willingness to begin the work on you. We all have learning to do. This is as much about us, our biases and behaviours, as it is about better understanding the people we want to create equity for. That can be a hard pill to swallow. No-one wants to see themselves as part of the problem. But since trustees are ultimately responsible for how charities are managed and run, they must be ready to question how they may be complicit in keeping a broken system alive and kicking.

So where do you start? You start from where you are. It doesn’t matter how little you know, or how uncomfortable you feel talking about race, the first step is acknowledging and naming your starting point. That is easier said than done! Being a trustee can feel at odds with showing our weaknesses, owning up to what we don’t know or naming where we might feel out of our depth. But it is an essential starting point if we are to genuinely move our charity forward with a sustainable and credible EDI agenda.

Perspective not emotion

The work of EDI needs our charity trustees to become astute truth tellers and critical observers. We need them to have the skill to move beyond the emotion of racism, perhaps our own defensiveness or embarrassment, and possibly shame. Without this, we cannot have the perspective that’s needed to really tackle this issue. When we can get out of our own way, then we’re ready to begin the real work of identifying the fundamental issues that stop us making equitable, inclusive progress.

In my view, this is more than acquiring knowledge. It’s personal development and a new level of self-awareness to foster confidence to lead decision-making on EDI. It’s being able to assess cultural blockers and barriers and know how to make change. It’s developing courage to have difficult conversations. It’s about bringing curiosity and new perspectives to charities that need to break out of monoculture ways of thinking and doing. It’s bringing creativity to how we find solutions, collaborating together with diverse teams.

We need trustees to place greater value on this learning journey and to see it as a vital contribution to the quality of their trusteeship so that they are not holding progress back.

Letesia Gibson is founder of New Ways, a platform that supports charity leadership and their boards to make sustainable and meaningful progress with anti-racism. She runs a course specifically for trustees to help foster the skills needed to facilitate anti-racism action. For more information see here.


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