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We can’t fix racial injustice in the charity sector without CEOs

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Did you know more than 60,000 trustees are called John or David? That the average trustee is a white man in his 60s? Or that just 3% of charity trustees are women of colour? Most charity boards simply don’t reflect the world we live in, explains Penny Wilson, CEO of Getting on Board.

At Getting on Board, we’re on a mission to change the face of trusteeship. We support young people, women, people of colour and more to take their seat at the trustee board. As part of that mission, we conduct research into the barriers that are holding some people back from becoming trustees, and talk to new trustees about their experiences. Recent focus groups with people of colour, women and under-30s, plus surveys of new trustees, brought out some striking themes. We simply had to share what we heard.

“Breaking into a club filled with old white men.” “Being pigeon-holed as a guardian for my demographic.” “Being invalidated.” These were just some of the concerns our participants told us they had about trusteeship. Under-30s talked about “negative attitudes of trustees towards young people” while people of colour were held back by racial discrimination, saying: “your voice is undermined and you feel like a minority.” Beset by “microaggressions”, “silencing of BAME people” and “feeling like a silent member of the board”, many people of colour told us they simply didn’t feel welcome on charity boards.

It’s sobering stuff. If boards don’t look like the communities they serve, how can they be representative? And it’s not ‘just’ a justice issue. The evidence is clear that diverse boards are more effective. So when boards recruit exclusively from the same old pool of candidates – which is older, whiter and maler than the average person – they’re missing out on a wide range of talent. In a post-Covid-19 world, charities can’t afford to miss out on diverse, agile and resilient board members who could help steer them through difficulty.

What can you do to change that?

Is your trustee board as diverse as you want it to be? Does it reflect the communities you serve and wider society? Is your board useful to the organisation? Does it have the skills, knowledge, ideas, input to support you to do your job, and to support the organisation to thrive?

Diversity versus skills is not an either/or choice, and it never has been. Your new, diverse trustees need to be recruited because of their skills, knowledge and experience (including lived experience), not because of their age, ethnicity or gender.

If you do want to improve the diversity of your board, you need to make sure your new trustees are coming into an inclusive environment. Are your trustees truly on board with recruiting new board members? Trustee diversity is not about how boards look, but how boards think. Are existing trustees ready to relish being challenged? How will new trustees be treated? Will they be heard? Will they have an equal voice? If not, there’s work to do there.

Advertise openly

Don’t just recruit by word of mouth. You’ll end up with new recruits who look like the old ones. Write a formal advert and advertise openly. Getting on Board can help you. Don’t always require candidates to have experience being a trustee (unless there’s a strong reason for needing an experienced trustee). The trustee body is 92% white, so you’re closing down your options before you’ve started. Include a sentence that shows you’re committed to diverse recruitment, like “We would particularly welcome applications from people of colour/women/young people as we are looking to improve the ethnic/gender/age diversity of our board”. This simple sentence can have incredible results.

Stand well back from trustee selection

As CEO, you can oversee the administration of the trustee recruitment process but you shouldn’t be taking part in decisions on trustee appointment. You are recruiting your own bosses and are therefore impossibly conflicted. It’s also technically the job of trustees (or members) to appoint other trustees. However, you will want to ensure that the process is slick and timely, and it is likely that the trustees will want you involved in shortlisting and interviewing and they should be very interested in your opinion on candidates.

Inductions are powerful tools for diversity

Your role in induction and inclusion is critical. Set up a full induction process, involve all of the trustees in that and suggest a buddy scheme for the first 6-12 months to pair your new trustees up with existing trustees. Check in with new trustees regularly and make sure they hit the ground running. All of this is for the good of your organisation: the better new trustees are inducted, the more they can do for the organisation. Imagine a new fundraiser and the quality of their work with little induction into the organisation (typical for a trustee), versus the likely quality of their work with a full induction into your services, history, challenges and field. It’s the same for trustees: the more we put in, the more we will get out. Training and expectation-setting are also likely to be more important for new trustees who haven’t been trustees before. 

Embrace difference

Lastly, trustees who are different will bring different opinions. That is their value. As CEO, listen. It’s tempting for CEOs to want compliant boards who love our work and agree with everything we say. But that’s not the role of trustee and those boards are not doing their jobs. Research has shown that diverse boards can be more innovative, more analytical and lead more commercially successful organisations.

But we don’t really need research to tell us that if we’re trying to tackle some of the most difficult social and environmental issues, a group of board members who are very similar in backgrounds, skills, knowledge and life experiences are not going to be the best tool for the job. Welcome those different viewpoints and be ready to change.

Commit to change

Once you’re committed to recruiting diverse new trustees, say so. Tell your colleagues, your supporters and your friends so they can support you and hold you accountable on your journey. Make a public pledge, then bring other people on board with our #BoardRevolution.

To learn more, read a summary of Getting on Board’s latest research, and download the report.

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