At Work: Law and Governance - Opinion - We're playing a representation game

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster and chairman of Aspire

Why should a charity's coffers suffer if its board is judged not to be suitably representative?

Another week, another set of mixed news from the fundraising department.

The unexpected legacy is counterbalanced by the washed-out event. What happened to August?

I try to take the long view, but one problem crops up with increasing regularity. Potential funders turn us down because our trustee body is "not sufficiently representative".

We are the national spinal injuries charity and two out of our eight trustees have spinal cord injuries. This, apparently, is not considered by some to be representative.

Percentage or parity

But representative of what? Of the number of people with spinal cord injury as a percentage of the population? That's 50,000 out of 60 million. At 25 per cent, we're way overdoing it.

Or is it representative of the number of people with disabilities in society? Which figure, though, do you choose? I heard one in four and one in nine quoted recently in the same lecture. Or is it just plain parity - 50:50 - that is required? It seems so.

So our trustee body needs to get "more representative". I'm comfortable with that, but there are two problems: one of principle, the other practical.

As a charity, we work with people with spinal cord injuries to show them that it is not their disability that defines them. They can achieve whatever they want - glittering career, happy marriage or even life as a gigolo.

Everything is as possible as it ever was. So having successfully preached this message, how can I as chairman turn round and ask someone with a spinal cord injury to be our "representative" trustee? It goes against everything we stand for.

Be more imaginative

In practical terms, I'm not sure if anyone can ever be truly representative.

A trauma such as a spinal cord injury affects everyone who suffers it differently - physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

In my experience of working with trustees with spinal cord injuries, no one would ever claim to "represent" the views of others in the same situation. Their views are shaped by their personal experiences, which are unique to them.

I know what potential funders are getting at with their criteria, but I think that they need to be a bit more imaginative than just implementing an inflexible quota system when awarding grants.

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