Opinion: Trustee diversity is a tool, not a talisman

Nick Cater, consultant and writer, catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

It's not quite time for open insurrection, but charity staff are finding the business of their boards of trustees a bit of a strain, according to research from Third Sector and nfpSynergy.

Reading between the lines, many staff seem to feel that trustees are lacklustre know-nothings who are not up to the job, perhaps because they are generally middle-class, old white men, probably Church of England and straight, whose disabilities extend as far as a bit of arthritis.

However, in a wonderful spirit of consensus, a full 42 per cent of trustees agree they lack vital skills, raising the question: what should the voluntary sector do with its duff buffers? Show trials, re-education, exile?

But is it so horrifying or unexpected that trustees come from the age, race, gender and class that controls much power, influence and money in other fields, from business and politics to the media? Do charities reflect one aspect of the reality of UK society, and do they actually benefit from the old boy network rather than being excluded by it?

With our society's quick pace of change, will not the inertia of boards that lag behind the real world be overcome in future, paving the way for a fuss-free transformation?

There is a baby-and-bath-water risk here. As that old white man Luke FitzHerbert once told me, banishing the twinset-and-pearls brigade from boards will lose charities vital contacts and a valuable understanding of those with wealth to donate.

Meanwhile, is nfpSynergy's Joe Saxton correct to claim that "right at the heart of this debate is one group, the staff, that needs to be convinced of the board's contribution to the organisation"?

Trustees may have to raise their game, but as guardians and, in effect, owners of charities, surely it is they who must be sure that staff are performing, missions are pursued and ideals are maintained.

And what of governance consultant Linda Laurance when she asks "how can we say we are really working for our communities if we're not representing any kind of cultural mix at board level?"

Although I generally favour lunatics taking over the asylum, diversity is a tool, not a talisman. The test of a charity is its ability to deliver, not merely the colour of its skin.

Amid the mutterings, the survey noted that 41 per cent of charity staff are or have been trustees. So many moaners are or were part of the trouble.

The logic is obvious: worker and trustee, heal thyself.

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