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How to be an ally: designing boards for racial diversity

We need to ensure people of colour encounter a supportive environment when they join charity boards

As Getting on Board knows only too well, the diversity of charity boards is currently not good - for example, only 3% of charity trustees are women of colour and 59% of charities are not representative of the communities they serve. And we know boards are mostly older, mostly male, mostly richer. And very, very white.

This is largely an outcome of board recruitment practices that are not open, transparent, or fair. You’re still very likely to get onto a charity board by knowing someone who’s already there, and older white men are most likely to know others similar to themselves.

Thankfully, this is changing. Charities are recognising that this is not sustainable or justifiable. More and more of us have woken up to the importance of proactively recruiting so there’s a wider range of people, skills and talent around the board table: by advertising trustee roles openly, and making efforts to recruit people from backgrounds which are under-represented - and not just so our boards look more diverse.

We’ve got a long way to go, though. Our research in 2020 found that people of colour had experienced appalling discrimination when they joined charity boards.

Retaining a diverse board

So it’s not enough to recruit for diversity. We need to work on retention for diversity, as well. That means making sure that when people of colour (and others) come onto charity boards, they encounter a welcoming environment and are supported to thrive.

There are a growing number of resources available to help charities connect with a broad range of potential trustees. We’re really excited to be supporting Action for Trustee Racial Diversity to create guides, networks and resources for Black and Asian trustees and potential trustees as well as charities, funded by The Co-op Foundation.

But individual boards also need to up their game. To become allies of trustees and potential trustees of colour, this means designing systems and changing cultures so that people of colour feel as valued and listened to as others around the board table.

Conscious anti-racism

It’s difficult to look racism in the eye, particularly when we know our intentions are good. It can be more comfortable for white people to deny or minimise racism than to make a concerted effort to be anti-racist. Both because it’s a system which favours us, and because it’s a potential source of confrontation - one that makes us feel awkward and uncomfortable.

People who don’t have lived experience of systemic racism, prejudice and being on the receiving end of unconscious bias are also less likely to notice these issues in the first place.

Learning to recognise signs of racism and having the courage to act upon them has got to be an important foundation. Getting on Board’s focus groups last year showed me that, dreadfully, these signs are all around.

Speaking up

It’s not enough just to look, but also to proactively speak up. White trustees have a responsibility to call out behaviour that is discriminatory, not just wait for someone else to do it, and then offer support. Behaviour like a trustee persistently being sidelined, or only asked their opinion on issues as they relate to a particular racial group. We don’t say “well, John, these service users are men so you must know how they feel?” So why do we do this to trustees of colour?

All of the trustees around the table have something to say that’s worth listening to. It’s easy to hear the dominant majority, but it can take more effort to give others the floor, listen and then amplify their voices. Because so often we inadvertently pay less attention to those with different characteristics and lived experiences than our own. This isn’t fair - and we miss out on the objectivity, creativity and rich insight that different trustees bring.

Systemic anti-racism

Many of us have the appetite to change but don’t know where to start. We make thousands of decisions a day but the majority of them without us consciously being aware - where to sit, who to look at. Almost all of those decisions are likely to be biased. So unless we redesign our systems to minimise unfairness we’re unlikely to achieve different outcomes.

The refreshed Charity Governance Code includes recommended practice about introducing systems that can help achieve change.

Start looking at how your board creates barriers to people of colour. What systems and unconscious bias might be contributing to this? Be willing to make yourselves feel uncomfortable and learn to talk about race. Commit to educating yourself so you can see what your way of doing things is like from a different perspective, and set concrete actions to change the systems you have in place.

Cultural anti-racism

Systems go hand in hand with culture. Changes to organisational culture need to come from the top and it’s important for boards to set a marker for what is and isn’t acceptable. Many boards have a code of conduct to set out expected behaviours of trustees. But do the standards we set ourselves encompass building inclusive as well as diverse boards?

Cultural change takes time but it isn’t impossible. We don’t have to wait until there’s a Black or Asian person in the room before becoming an ally. Demonstrate to that potential trustee that you’re willing to put in the effort to make them feel invited, empowered and valued. That you don’t expect them to lead the charge or fight the battle alone.

Identifying actions that result in unfairness and inequality towards people marginalised in society and under-represented on our boards - and and taking steps to address them - can be as much a part of every charity’s work as our core mission.

Lynn Cadman is Getting on Board’s interim CEO while CEO Penny Wilson is on leave.

This article originally appeared in Third Sector

Photo by AllGo on Unsplash


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