Many charities support people with disabilities but board representation is low
Disability is extremely common in the UK. One in five working age adults is disabled. Two in five people over the age of retirement are disabled.
The sector is closely engaged with disability. Many charities exist to support people with disabilities. The sector is full of people campaigning on disability rights.
But the level of representation of disability on charity boards appears to be relatively low.
Given the average age of the trustee board, you would expect at least three in ten trustees to have a disability.
We don’t have particularly strong evidence to show how many trustees are disabled, which is perhaps in itself quite telling. But even taking into account that not all disabilities are visible, we can be relatively sure that less than 30 percent of the average board is disabled.
If we want trustee boards to be representative of the communities we serve, then disabled people should, if anything, be overrepresented on charity boards. So this is a failing on our part.
Practically, disabled people face barriers to becoming trustees at every stage of the journey. Some of those barriers are placed in their way by society well before they ever get close to a charity board. Others are placed in their way by charities themselves. Together they form a formidable barrier. If charities want to create genuinely diverse and representative boards, we need to proactively design recruitment processes to actively empower people with disabilities.
What are the barriers?
One barrier is disability itself. Disabled individuals are likely to find it harder to travel to meetings. Disability can affect health or energy levels, or make it harder to see or hear, or hamper spoken or written communication. In any of these cases, trusteeship is likely to be more difficult.
But a secondary set of barriers exist around education and employment. We know that a very high percentage of charity trustees have a postgraduate qualification, and that charities actively recruit for these qualifications – particularly for finance and legal skills.
But if you’re disabled you face barriers to getting a postgraduate qualification and yet more barriers to getting a job. So disabled people are statistically much less likely to develop the high-status skills and impressive CV that charities say they’re looking for when they come to recruit.
Employment history also impacts on personal wealth. Trustees are predominantly wealthier than the average person, presumably because wealth offers the time and security to devote to unpaid work. But disabled people tend to have lower incomes because of the barriers to education and work.
Employment and education impact on disabled individuals’ access to personal networks. We know that charities recruit board members largely through the personal networks of existing trustees. So disabled people face another barrier as they don’t have access to the same networks.
Finally, above and beyond all this, there is simple prejudice and bias. Even if disabled people do seek to become board members, or do become board members, they are likely to face prejudice from other individuals involved in the process. We know that both conscious and unconscious bias are rife in trustee recruitment, and undoubtedly both are bad news for disabled people seeking a trusteeship. Even with good intentions, charities can be concerned about the cost and impact on their working practices that arise from changes that are needed to empower disabled trustees to participate fully. And so disabled people miss out. But so do the charities that would benefit from the invaluable insights and resilience that disabled trustees would bring.
What are the solutions?
The first solution is to pay attention to the problem. If CEOs and trustees feel it is important to have representative levels of disabled individuals on their board, it will happen. The chances are that most boards have simply not given the issue much thought.
The second solution is to make changes in the recruitment process.
The whole way trustees are recruited feels almost expressly structured to hamper the chances of disabled people. It could hardly be less encouraging if it was designed that way.
The way to solve the problem is to care enough to want to solve it, and then to take proactive steps to recruit people with experience of disability onto your board.
When recruiting for a board we have more latitude than when recruiting for a paid role. Good practice in paid work is to guarantee an interview to disabled individuals making an application, and to use blind CVs to screen out prejudicial information.
This might help a little, but it will not lead to proportionate levels of disabled individuals on boards. To get more disabled people onto boards, we need to actively recruit. We need to work with specialists with good networks in the field of disability, approach suitable individuals, ask them to get involved, and demonstrate that we’re serious about supporting them to serve as a trustee well.
Finally, a word about retention.
Recruiting disabled people then means making reasonable adjustment for disability, and ensuring that the culture is welcoming. That includes tailoring the support that’s provided to individual trustees (and not just assuming we know what this is) and changing our working practices so that disabled people can engage at board level as fully as anyone else around the table. It means thinking, not just about whether where we’re meeting has wheelchair access, but how easy the building is to get to and whether there’s a station or parking space nearby. It means producing board papers that use straightforward language or graphics to make their content easy to understand, or that are compatible with tech that a disabled trustee might use. It means circulating board papers in plenty of time so that trustees don’t have to read them all on one day. And actually these adjustments can also benefit others on the board.
In too many cases charities make an effort to recruit new people to create more representative boards and then do nothing whatsoever to change the board culture and accommodate new individuals.
It’s not enough to recruit well. You must also retain well.
Lynn Cadman is Getting on Board's Interim CEO