Board Talk: How important is diversity to a charity trustee board?

Alex Swallow and Martin Farrell on how boards can better reflect their constituencies

Board Talk
Board Talk

AS: I think board diversity is extremely important. Through my own small organisation I try to encourage more young people to join the boards of charities, but I think that it's just as important to have diversity in terms of gender, disability, sexuality, ethnicity or background. I think that some boards believe diversity is simply about skills: these are crucial, of course, but that isn't the type of diversity I'm talking about.

MF: Yes. It seems to me that it is important to ask "why?" Why is diversity on a board a good thing? It might appear self-evident, but by questioning it we can get a better understanding of how having diversity will improve a board's performance and help it play its part in achieving the mission of the organisation. Being diverse just to look good and be 'politically correct' is not what it's about.

AS: I'd agree with that and, from a personal perspective, 'political correctness' has long been one of my chief bugbears. However, I think there are some clear arguments here. One is about distance from the service being provided. For example, it's likely that a charity for young people that has no young people on its board would be impoverished in some aspects of its decision making.

MF: Exactly. 'Diverse' does not mean having one of everything you can think of: it means having a board that fully reflects the 'constituency' it is working with and reasonably reflects the community it is working in. By community, I mean everything from a community on a housing estate or in a city, an activity or interest group, through to a national community and, indeed, an international community.

Alex SwallowAS: I like the point you make about community. When you are talking about a national community, I presume you mean that a national board should be quite mixed. Also, if we have established that diversity is important, what are some of the ways in which you think it can be achieved?

MF: Start with thinking about where you want to be. This will involve noticing the main groups of people in the constituency the organisation serves. Second, you need to think about the environment you operate in and then the skills you need around the table. Add these together and you realise that to get a fully diverse board you will need a few hundred people. That won't work, so look again and decide which are the most important ingredients.

AS: For me, it's less about who you serve and more about how open you are to applications from different groups. If boards don't go beyond personal contacts, for example, it is unlikely to result in much diversity.

Martin FarrellMF: I agree that it is sensible to cast your net beyond personal contacts if you're running a recruitment process, the aim of which is to extend beyond the kind of people you already have on the board and are familiar with.

AS: Speaking from the perspective of recruiting young people, many simply don't realise that they are able to be trustees. Charities sometimes try to think of all sorts of innovative ways to get young people on their boards but, for me, the fundamental step is to understand that you have to recruit openly and widely. Once it happens, it seems to be such a win-win.

MF: Maybe we need to think about giving ourselves a bit of a jolt out of our normal way of doing things. If it's always comfortable, we're inclined not to change. So how about holding some board places open, appointing a specific trustee to be held accountable for driving the change and filling places only with people who will bring the board into balance? It's uncomfortable for a while, but will bring you joy in the end.

AS: I think that there will be different solutions for different boards - the great thing about considering diversity is that it forces boards to look at their existing systems of governance. As an example, there might be people who have been on the board for 10 or more years who would love to step down, or it could be that others need training and don't know how to ask for it. Boards need a 'safe space' where they can review practice and think critically about what will drive the organisation forward, and indeed what their members are feeling as human beings.

Alex Swallow is the founder of Young Charity Trustees, which encourages trusteeship and supports young trustees

Martin Farrell is chair of Read International and founder and director of get2thepoint

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