The role of diverse boards in tough times

As charity leaders, we are currently navigating our charities through what is probably the roughest seas we will ever encounter. And we’re only just at the start of the voyage.

It’s tempting in these tough times to batten down the hatches. We’re struggling to stay afloat. Many of us are losing staff, volunteers can’t support us in the way they used to, funding streams have been cut off at the knees and services have been transformed at best, decimated at worst.

The last thing on many of our minds is recruiting new trustees. But that could be a fundamental error. A relevant mix of people on your board is one of the primary ways of strengthening your organisation’s resilience.

Now is the time to turn your attention to the support that a strong, diverse board can provide in this crisis, and to ‘building back better’.

Firstly, the external environment has changed beyond recognition. The board that you carefully put together for pre-COVID times may now not have all of the skills, knowledge and experiences that you need to thrive in the new normal. Perhaps all of your services were face-to-face, and you’ve needed to go digital. Has your board got the relevant digital and safeguarding knowledge to oversee that transformation? Or perhaps you need to totally restructure your staff and operations. Have your trustees got the experience in HR and change management that will help them make the right decisions?

Secondly, and horrifyingly, COVID affects some sections of our society worse than others. And it is no coincidence that there is a great deal of overlap between those groups and those currently under-represented on trustee boards. Only 8% of trustees are people of colour (compared to 14% of the wider population), and 36% of trustees are women. 59% of charities say that their boards aren’t representative of the communities they serve. And only 25% of trustees are from households below the national median for household income. (Taken on Trust, Charity Commission for England and Wales, 2017, which can be viewed here).

We are at the coal face in supporting those worse affected by this crisis. But it’s an uncomfortable truth that those people often do not have a seat at our board tables.

And this goes much, much further than a board of trustees being close to the changing needs of its current and future service users.

We seem to have forgotten that diversity of thought is at the very heart of good governance.

Think of all of the boards you have known. How many have represented a wealth of skills and experiences, refreshed over time to keep them relevant and therefore, able to critically analyse the options before them? Boards which can steer an organisation through tough times, and seize major opportunities which allow the organisation to thrive?

I’m willing to bet that although some of the boards you have known fitted this description, many haven’t. I’m also willing to bet that a sizeable number of you scoffed into your cups of tea at the very suggestion that a board could be like that.

Many of our boards are simply nodding things through, with little constructive debate.

Bemusingly, in 2020, most of our trustees are still recruited informally through existing networks. This leads us to recruit more people like us. We explicitly and proudly recruit ‘for fit’. These practices are the enemy of good governance. One of the foundations of good governance is pro-actively seeking out diversity of perspectives and experiences because that builds the kind of board which has been shown to be the most effective.

All kinds of untapped skills and experience are available to you from all kinds of people. We are our own worse enemies in assuming that the best trustees are older, senior in their day jobs, from a limited group of professions, and already experienced trustees. Yes, of course, we need people that fit this description. But an effective board cannot by definition solely be made up of people who fit that (or any other) description. The difference is at the core of effective governance.

If we want to #BuildBackBetter, we must pay attention to our boards. Time to get recruiting.

Penny Wilson is CEO of Getting on Board

If you are a charity leader who wants to take practical action to diversify your charity’s board, see Getting on Board’s Transform programme.

Penny was a speaker at the Charity Governance Summit in a session on Improving trustee diversity on governance boards.

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