The debate around trustee experience is important, but we must guard against a dichotomy between lived and professional experience
I have been away since December, and returned to a flurry of excellent writing on the topic of lived experience on charity boards. That is to say: trustees with personal experience of the issues the charity is seeking to tackle.
I have something to say on this.
People can’t be pigeonholed. Yes, there is a difference between lived and learned experience. And, absolutely, they should be equally valued – which they are not in our sector at the moment. But what we often ignore is that trustees with lived and learned experience can be one and the same.
I’m going to use myself as an example. Bear with me.
I’m a charity chief executive, so I have some potentially useful skills via my day job: finance, HR, fundraising, training, sales and marketing, digital, partnerships, unblocking ancient photocopiers.
I know a bit about governance, trustee recruitment and equality. Professional skills that will be useful to some boards – tick.
I have some useful knowledge (I know the charity sector well; in fact, I could make your hair fall out if I ever shared the massive array of governance challenges I’m exposed to in our work) and I’m a fairly experienced trustee.
I try to be a good board member – which, in summary, involves not being an arsehole, pulling my weight and speaking out. Knowledge and experience – tick.
On with my pigeonholes. I’m a woman, and youngish as trusteeship goes: a full 12 years under the average age of a trustee, although homeschooling has made me feel like I’m 176. So, I’m from a couple of groups under-represented on charity boards in terms of protected characteristics – tick.
I’m not from London, and I don’t live there, which is a rarity in some national charity boards. This isn’t as esoteric as you think. Geography really matters on boards, whether it’s national or local.
I also have lived experience of childhood bereavement, minor illness, and being brought up for part of my childhood in what many fellow trustees (if they knew) might conveniently identify as “poverty”, but I would call “normal”.
I come from a single-parent family and went to Cambridge University despite being from a “low-income household” (yuck – reserve for funding bids only, please). Lived experience – tick.
I might choose to disclose my lived experience to my fellow trustees, I might not. It might not actually be relevant if I join the board of an animal charity.
But if I do disclose it, I stand a real risk of being pigeonholed as the “lived experience” or “service user” trustee – and therefore not being valued as much, only asked to speak on certain issues, wheeled out as a success story (this has happened to me multiple times and it’s truly awful). Or expected to represent a huge, diverse population that can’t all have had the same experiences.
This judgement of lived experience made me hesitate to include some of it in this article – particularly the stuff around class, which is most narrowly judged.
I am not alone: I regularly meet trustees and charity chief executives who choose not to disclose their lived experience.
We value the professional trustee above all else, and this is misguided. How can that possibly be of greater value to us than a deep personal understanding of the social or environmental challenges we’re seeking to address?
Every charity ought to value lived experience on their board. If you are a charity tackling homelessness, do you have people with lived experience of homelessness on the board?
If you are a community centre, does your board reflect your community? If you are a mental health charity, are those whose mental health is most affected by the current crisis well represented on your board?
In our research, 59 per cent of charities said that their boards did not reflect their communities, so we have a way to go.
But we are behaving as if the categories of lived and learned experience don’t overlap. This issue is much better-rehearsed for protected characteristics where “intersectionality” is a fairly well-aired term.
And this is before we even start to talk about inclusion. Having trustees with lived experience isn’t enough.
Are they valued? Are their voices heard? Are they equipped to contribute? Or are you just expecting them to assimilate to your age-old way of doing things?
This is a great debate, and I’m so pleased it’s on the agenda. But we must guard against setting up a dichotomy between lived and learned/professional experience.
We must push back against valuing one more than the other. The simplest way to do that is to treat people as individuals.
Penny Wilson is Getting on Board's CEO.
Sign up for our newsletter for