Nineteen per cent of people in the UK have disabilities, yet the composition of many charity boards does not reflect this figure and, for small charities, some of the challenges are particularly acute.
"My experience is that outside the deaf and disability charities, levels of representation are really low," says Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, which supports small deafness and disability charities and advises non-disability charities about how to make boards more inclusive.
One major problem, says Lazard, is that classical governance models, as endorsed by the Charity Commission, encourage the appointment of trustees with specific skills in, say, accountancy, law and HR, but the discrimination suffered by people with disabilities means they are less likely to possess these skills and the wider qualities they have are ignored. "People with learning disabilities have valuable experience in understanding the needs of many service users," says Lazard. By contrast, she says, academically well-qualified and able-bodied people "are often removed from the experiences of service users".
Lazard acknowledges that professional skills are important, but suggests that focusing too narrowly on them can lead to a "reductive" approach that excludes many good candidates with disabilities. "You need people who can be trained in areas like accountancy so they can hold the chief executive to account, but they shouldn't have to be accountants," she says. "I would like to see the Charity Commission work with the sector to explore the other skillsets people with disabilities bring to boards."
Funding cuts have undermined many charities' attempts to promote diversity, but the impact has been particularly severe on small organisations, says Lazard, where the loss of relatively small amounts of funding can have big implications. For example, she says, saving £200 on a British Sign Language interpreter at board meetings immediately excludes many deaf people.
Another major issue, says Lazard, is a lack of documents in easy-read, a format that helps people with learning disabilities.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations published an easy-read good trustee guide in December and Lazard wants other sector bodies to follow its example. She says the financial climate also underlines the need to educate funders about the additional costs required to make governance more diverse. "The voluntary sector is closest to deafness and disability communities, but is the least financially able to address the issues," she points out.
There is also a wider lack of awareness about disability equality issues, even within charities: race, gender and sexuality tend to be higher up the agenda. "We tend to be the last on the list," says Lazard. "Disability equality is the last thing talked about."
All eight board members of Inclusion London, which has an income of less than £700,000, are deaf or disabled. It has been working with the Merton Centre for Independent Living, another user-led disability group, to develop good practice. Together they published a good governance training handbook. "We want to get boards talking about key issues," says Lazard, who argues that the structure of board meetings almost invites inertia. "Board meetings can be dry, going through legal issues rather than talking about, say, 'what does independence mean and how do we promote it?'"
She says one of the main issues when recruiting more diverse boards is conflicts of interest. Having service users involved is great for getting their voices heard, but they're not always clear which hat they're wearing and can be open to allegations of favouritism and pursuing personal benefit.
But charities that take the issue seriously will reap benefits, she adds. "Diversity is important, not just as a principle but also as a way of ensuring you have talent across an organisation," says Lazard. "You want boards that have wider experience of the 19 per cent of the population. Whatever you do, that knowledge of disabled people is vital for your success."