Beware tokenistic appointment of service users to the boardroom, report warns

Asking the Difficult Questions, by Rachael Smith of the mental health charity Mind, says charities should fully explore why they want to make service users trustees before they do so

Boardroom: report addresses question of tokenism
Boardroom: report addresses question of tokenism

Any charity this is recruiting a current or previous service user as a trustee must understand why exactly they want that person on their board, or they risk making a tokenistic appointment, according to a new study.

Asking the Difficult Questions has been produced by Rachael Smith, head of strategic planning and governance at the mental health charity Mind and a fellow of the Clore Social Leadership Programme.

The paper says: "For over a decade the practice of service-user involvement has become embedded within the social sector; the role of service users as leaders, however, remains underexplored and underdeveloped."

Smith based her paper on interviews with personnel at Mind and at the umbrella charities Clinks, DrugScope and Homeless Link.

She says the importance of service-user trustees is "grounded in the issues of credibility, inclusion and the embodiment of organisational values, but also effectiveness and the ability to influence policy-makers". However, the interviews she conducted revealed that the charities were also aware of the need to avoid tokenism or being seen to be ticking boxes.

Smith’s paper contains five questions that charities should ask themselves before appointing service-user trustees, including what their objective is in doing so, what impact the service user should have on decision-making and what specific barriers there might be that could make it difficult for service users to take on trusteeship.

The report says: "The board’s first step should be to dig beneath the rhetoric. Fully exploring why they want service users on the board is key to unlocking how they should do it and to avoiding a tokenistic appointment."

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