Reaping the rewards of a diverse board

Diversity on trustee boards is a hot topic of conversation among charities, but we don't always see results. Creating a diverse board is challenging and hard work. To recruit people who aren't typically represented on boards — including individuals with disabilities and those from minority ethnic communities — takes time and energy.

But achieving diversity brings huge rewards, both for your organisation and the people you support. Having trustees with a range of skills and experiences allows you to set strategic direction for your organisation. Without this, you could struggle to fulfil your charity's aims.

A board with an equal gender split, a spread of age and ethnicity, and varying ability and disability, is reflective of the communities you work with. By having trustees with diverse views, decision making is more informed and supportive of your service users.

There is no magic wand

Creating a diverse board requires commitment. Ultimately, you want to create an environment where divergent views are welcomed, and individuals feel confident sharing their ideas. To achieve this, trust and mutual respect is essential — both between board members and between the trustees and the executive team. It takes time to build this. There's no shortcut.

At The Advocacy Project, we've taken practical steps to achieve diversity. This includes carrying out skills audits to analyse the existing strengths and gaps in skills and experience, and advertising trustee roles in diverse communities in community languages or Easy Read. We use a combination of skills audits and open recruitment to create a diverse board of trustees.

It's important not to rely solely on skills audits, as this can lead to an over focus on professional disciplines, ignoring first-hand experience. Over professionalising boards can come at a price: experts by experience (those with lived experiences of the issues you work on) can be squeezed out. To have a well functioning board, you need a combination of lived experience and professional skills and qualifications.

We regularly review our board composition to ensure we have the right proportions of professional trustees and trustees who are experts by experience. One third of our trustees have experience of mental health conditions, learning disabilities or dementia — ensuring the communities we work with have a voice at the board table.

Living and breathing diversity

Once you've recruited a diverse board, the hard work doesn't stop there. You need to support trustees in their roles by providing them with accessible information. This includes Easy Read summaries of board papers and financial summaries of management accounts. As chairs, we also play a crucial role in creating inclusive boards, making sure everyone has the time and space in meetings to raise their views.

Ahead of our board meetings, we hold preparation meetings to ensure trustees understand the items for discussion. We also use the Good Trustee Guide in Easy Read in our trustee inductions; we produced the guide in partnership with National Council for Voluntary Organisations in December 2016.

It's a win-win situation

Having a diverse board has had a positive impact on The Advocacy Project's work. We've been able to identify and address gaps in service provision, including providing end of life advocacy. It's also helped us to prioritise the need for a communications team to raise awareness of our work among people with disabilities and health conditions.

In our experience, the time and energy invested in creating a diverse governance structure pays off. Not only will you be clear on your strategic direction, you'll have a dynamic team to take you there.

Let's turn the conversations into action. As a sector, we need to do more than pay lip service to this issue. We need to put diversity into practice and embed it into our trustee boards.

Kate Ferguson,  Chair of the Board of Trustees, The Advocacy Project

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