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Why board diversity boosts resilience

Fiona McAuslan, Getting on Board's Communications Director, tells the story of how one charity’s journey to a more diverse board has led to transformational change.

“There is no way I would have made it through the pandemic if I still had Robert as our chair.”

This is a tale of transformation. It’s a tale of resilience. It’s also a story of diversity and why the latter two are intertwined and codependent. It’s a true story, so most of the names have been changed.

The story goes like this…

Hannah, the CEO of a medium-sized charitable body, was feeling ground down. For over five years, she had been beating the drum for a refresh of the board, with new trustees brought in from a wider range of skills areas, backgrounds and experiences. It had been to no avail. Her charity’s services were stagnating, poor funding needed to be addressed, and the service users were not well represented in board decisions. Yet the chairman, emboldened by some of the other trustees, continually pushed back.

‘We did have a stab at open recruitment but it failed miserably. One good candidate was vetoed outright. The selection committee said he wouldn’t fit in. I found out later it was because he came to the interview wearing a hat,’ says Hannah. A ray of light cut through the boardroom dust motes when the outgoing chairman stood down and a new chair was appointed - albeit internally and fairly unilaterally - in November 2020. ‘One of the first things Jo, the new chair, did was conduct a skills, knowledge and diversity audit and produce a really good paper outlining the gaps,’ says Hannah.

The board tentatively agreed to a round of open recruitment.

Recruiting with confidence

To kick things off, Jo and Hannah arranged a series of virtual open evenings where they showcased the charity’s services, talked about what skills and experience were needed for the charity to move forward, and the time commitment they were looking for from trustees.

That they were able to attract 13 strong applicants at the height of the pandemic is a testament not only to their individual commitment but to the power of a well conceived and executed open recruitment strategy. ‘We were looking for two or three trustees so we decided to interview 11 out of the 13 because we recognised that they were a diverse bunch and we wanted to give them all a fair crack at the whip,’ says Hannah. The applicants who weren’t called for interview were people whose skill set and professional experience was in finance, which was already well represented among the existing trustees.

The trustees were confidently able to make that decision, one which many boards would struggle to justify, thanks to that early skills audit. The accurate assessment of where their deficit actually lay, gave them the confidence to do so, rather than forcing them to rely on a preconceived notion of what skills a trustee ‘should’ have.

The recruitment process resulted in five new trustees, which the board appointed in staggered stages, making sure a full induction brought those without previous board governance experience up to speed. ‘Now our board composition has changed. Previously we were eight men and three women. Now we have 12 trustees, with more women than men. Two are people of colour and a third is non-British. Three are in their 30s, one is in their 20s and there are now more people on the board in paid employment than retired. We have some way to go in terms of representing our demographic but it’s much better than it was.’

Building resilience

So much for transformation, but how does this relate to resilience? ‘Staff were terrified of what the pandemic would do to the charity. But Jo and the other trustees rolled their sleeves up and got stuck in. We paused sub committees and did everything through a crisis management board which met monthly. The governance of the board meetings was sorted out and the fundraising crisis successfully addressed,’ says Hannah.

‘It's been a hell of a year but Jo and the trustees managed this transformation against the context of everything that’s been happening.’

‘Jo had my back throughout. And I don’t mean she hasn’t challenged me, she has. But she’s helped me focus on the things I needed to focus on to pull us through.’

‘The trustees brought a different energy and approach to board discussions. There is much more questioning in a really sensible way,’ says Hannah.

The refreshed board was not just revitalised in terms of energy and culture. Between them, the new trustees were able to employ their considerable skills, knowledge and experience in legal governance, organisation development, social work, digital fundraising and database design to maximum effect at a time when it was needed most.

Key characteristics

Resilience is primarily an ability to recover quickly from difficulties, and psychological studies attribute some key characteristics to those most able to do so. Finding purpose in what you’re doing, talking about what you’re going through and having the right support on the board are absolutely key here. ‘Group think’, stale ideas and resistance to change are anathema to this.

Being adaptive is also absolutely fundamental to being resilient particularly in the charity sector. In the last year those charities that were able to shape their services to accommodate the new normal or mobilise huge teams of furloughed volunteers to run service centres have been the resilience winners. But to do that you need debate, fresh thinking, different strategies - all the attributes that are inherent to a diverse board yet wholly absent from one that relies on the same old thinking. The charity Commission for England and Wales states, ‘A diverse board can bolster a charity’s resilience and give it the best chance of fulfilling its purpose for the future.’ It is unequivocal that diversity is essential for board, and therefore charity, health.

If you’re reading this and thinking that Hannah and Jo’s story is too good to be true, rest assured that all this really happened – although it wasn’t as linear as retold here. There were bumps along the way (two of the original board resigned for example - dismayed at the scale of change). However, as with all transformation stories, it holds out a beacon of hope: this too could be you, this too could be your board. All that’s needed is a commitment to embrace change.

This blog first appeared on the Rathbones website. Download the How to Recruit Trustees to your Board guide, sponsored by Rathbones, for more information.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki



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