Board diversity: Pulling in the right direction ...

Many charities have tried and failed to introduce greater diversity among trustees. Christopher Zealley, former chair of Which? and an experienced trustee, explains why it is so difficult to make progress.

Who are the top people in charities? And who should they be? Although women have made good progress in terms of discrimination, in the main the profile is still that of a predominantly white, middle-aged, male hierarchy. Black and disabled people are few and far between, and there would appear to be a strong bias towards those who have had private or university educations. Many of the issues that cause this lack of diversity among charity chief executives were researched by Third Sector and well ventilated in the 22 March issue. The problem is not confined to charity management, however - it also applies to trustee boards.

Charities differ enormously, and no one can claim to have had experience of every category. My own involvement with charities has been over a period of more than 30 years. I have been a chief executive and also trustee or chair of a number of charities, both endowed and fundraising. My experience cannot be described as wholly comprehensive, but it has been wide and varied. I have also worked in a number of charities that have tried most conscientiously to break out of the traditional mould of the white, male, middle-class types at the top. But each has had very limited success.

Many people believe the problem to be some kind of conspiracy or old-boy network. But before jumping to this conclusion, I would suggest that there are more basic - and perhaps more depressing - reasons for the apparent discrimination that operates among charities.

When it comes to board diversity, the first basic problem is that it is remarkably difficult to get people to be trustees at all. This has been the case for years, and long before discrimination issues ever emerged as a priority.

There are a number of reasons for this - long working hours and families in which both adults are working, for example. Whatever the reasons, this dearth of volunteers is absolutely fundamental to the question of finding competent trustees for a charity, never mind their social profile. If the need is to get trustees who will pay really serious time and attention to the job, the task of finding them becomes even more difficult.

Another problem is that a lot of individuals who might be interested in becoming charity trustees are intimidated by the current debate about responsibilities and accountability. This emphasis has got out of hand.

Of course, trustees are accountable and have always been so - but going on about it too much sounds very much like yet another stick, with no sign of a carrot.

When you look for trustees, then, what you typically get is individuals who are competent in a field and who can give some but not much time to the charity, or others who are keen but inexperienced. This second group, which needs to be encouraged, cannot help taking a long time to pick up what the actual working operation is all about, and some have difficulties in making up for their lack of wider experience. Unfortunately, professional staff often resent such trustees.

These basic problems emerge before we start to worry about ethnicity, diversity and equality of opportunity, all of which are crucial.

When it comes to appointing top executives, it is theoretically less difficult. But this brings us to the single main factor that works against diversity in all the top positions in charities - the discrimination that has held many people back from positions of responsibility in the rest of their lives redoubles their disadvantages for a senior role in a charity.

It shouldn't do, but it does.

Charities are obliged to seek trustees with wide experience and competence, because without those qualities on their boards they are likely to fail.

They must also find top executives who have senior experience, developed either in the charity world itself or in other occupations.

The lists of candidates who are confident enough to put themselves forward simply do not include anything like enough people from the categories who are so seriously under-represented.

I use the word 'confidence' deliberately. If your starting point in life is one of disadvantage and you want to break through, you need to have twice or three times as much chutzpah as others - never mind your actual capabilities - just to project yourself into the competitive world of the top.

I have seen or taken part in the making of many appointments at every level of seniority, and the pattern I describe above is true almost every time. This is the case regardless of how much a charity might want to be inclusive and broaden the diversity of its staff, management and trustees.

The practical problem is that a charity must try to get the best possible person for each job it needs to fill. But simply not enough candidates come from the categories we are discussing, so they remain seriously under-represented.

No one has yet come up with a solution to this problem, and we are not getting there as fast as we would wish. So the follow-up question has to be less ambitious - are we at least moving in the right direction?

If Third Sector repeats its diversity survey on a regular basis, I believe that, despite all the difficulties, we might discover some grounds for optimism.

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