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Why I’m not getting out the bunting yet on trustee diversity

Updated: Jan 6, 2022

Charity leaders may agree on the value of diverse boards, but there is still a massive gap between intent and practice

Let’s start with the good news. In the insurance company Ecclesiastical’s recently-published research, two-thirds of charities say they are actively looking to recruit trustees from more diverse backgrounds.

Whoop, whoop! This is music to the ears of someone who runs a trustee diversity charity.

And the stats are mirrored in Acevo’s 2021 pay and equalities survey, which found that 43 per cent of respondents planned to address ethnic diversity on their boards within the next year, while just 25 per cent were happy with the ethnic diversity of their boards.

In a sector whose board members are two-thirds male, two-thirds over the age of 50, but just 8 per cent are people of colour and 25 per cent come from households below the national median for household income, you would hope that charity leaders would want to see change.

I have written extensively about why the lack of diversity on our trustee boards is an own goal for our sector.

Why wouldn’t we want to be close to the changing needs of our service users? Why wouldn’t we want the widest access to talent, or to build strong governance with boards containing a mix of relevant perspectives, skills and knowledge?

The charity leaders we speak to each year at Getting on Board almost invariably agree.

But forgive me if I don’t get out the bunting yet. There is still a massive gap between intent and practice.

The Ecclesiastical research also found that 42 per cent and 40 per cent of respondents respectively became a trustee by being approached by a member of the charity’s staff or another trustee.

The most common method (48 per cent) for an organisation recruiting trustees was through “existing trustee referrals”.

Come on, guys (and I use the term advisedly) – it’s 2021. Trusteeship should not be an old boys’ club (I use that term advisedly too).

It’s common sense that if we recruit from existing networks we will recruit more people like us.

If we put up barriers such as requiring applicants to have been a trustee before, our pool of potential applicants will be restricted.

If we produce a dull, wordy trustee advert full of legalese then stick it on our own website and nowhere else, we cannot expect the applicants to be different to the trustees we already have.

We work with hundreds of charity leaders each year who express surprise that their trustee recruitment has not produced a more diverse board, even though they have changed very little about how they recruit.

Instead, we need to take drastic, intentional action. Common sense around trustee recruitment needs to become common practice.

A major area in which intent and practice are out of step is lived experience. Lived experience is under-represented and under-valued on charity boards, but according to the Ecclesiastical research, the most important attribute for new trustees is “understanding of beneficiaries’ needs”.

According to Getting On Board’s research, 60 per cent of charities said that their boards don’t reflect the communities they serve.

So, what do we mean by “understanding beneficiaries’ needs” – is it “understanding” in the way Victorian philanthropists understood the plight of the deserving poor from their fancy townhouses?

If we are serious about understanding the challenges of people who access our services, we need to give them a full seat at the table.

Of course it’s not enough to recruit trustees who will diversify our board. We need to welcome them, listen to them, be ready to change because of their input and be sure that their voices will have the same clout as existing trustees.

Organisations need to check they are at that stage before they recruit. But we seem to be stalling and I fear that it’s not because organisations are hard at work making sure their board culture is inclusive.

I’m an optimistic person. I’m excited by the enormous potential of making trusteeship more accessible.

Imagine a world in which trusteeship is well known and there is a huge pool of aspiring trustees, from which charities can recruit people with the skills, knowledge and experience (including lived experience) they need to deliver their ambitions. Third sector paradise. And yet, does it have to be so far out of our grasp?

In the Ecclesiastical research, 86 per cent of respondents said their experience of being a trustee had been positive (followed by enough heartwarming comments to thaw an ice cream factory).

And when asked “What do you think charities could do to encourage trustees from a wider range of ages, backgrounds and communities?”, the highest response (44 per cent) was “promote the benefits of being a trustee more widely”.

Yes! This is exactly what organisations like Getting on Board, Reach Volunteering, The Action for Trustee Racial Diversity and the Young Trustees Movement are busy doing.

But there is a role for every single reader of this article. Shout it from the rooftops: you too can be a trustee!

Let’s share this treasure beyond the old boys’ club. Then I might hang out the bunting.

Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting on Board. This article appeared first on the Third Sector website.


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