Lynn Cadman: Charity boards must do more to shape inclusive cultures

Creating boards that are genuinely inclusive goes beyond diversifying recruitment – we must create environments where marginalised trustees can thrive

Lynn Cadman
Lynn Cadman

As we at Getting on Board know only too well, the diversity of charity boards is not good.

Only three per cent of charity trustees are women of colour and 59 per cent of charities do not represent the communities they serve.

Boards are mostly older, mostly male, mostly rich. And very, very white.

This is largely an outcome of board recruitment practices that are not open, transparent, or fair.

You’re still very likely to get onto a charity board by knowing someone who is already there, and older white men are most likely to know people similar to themselves.

Thankfully, this is changing. Charities are recognising that this is not sustainable or justifiable.

More have woken up to the importance of proactively recruiting so there is a wider range of people, skills and talent around the board table: by advertising trustee roles openly, and making efforts to recruit people from backgrounds that are under-represented.

We still have a long way to go, though. Our research in 2020 found people of colour had experienced appalling discrimination when they joined charity boards.

So it’s not enough to recruit for diversity – we need to work on retaining it.

That means making sure that when people of colour (and others) join charity boards, they encounter a welcoming environment and are supported to thrive.

There is a growing number of resources to help charities connect with a broad range of potential trustees.

We’re really excited to be supporting Action for Trustee Racial Diversity to create guides, networks and resources for black and Asian trustees and potential trustees, as well as charities.

But individual boards also need to up their game.

Becoming allies of trustees and potential trustees of colour means designing systems and changing cultures so they feel as valued and listened to as others around the board table.

Conscious anti-racism

It can be more comfortable for white people to deny or minimise racism than to make a concerted effort to be anti-racist: because it’s a system that favours us, and it’s a potential source of confrontation that makes us feel awkward and uncomfortable.

People who don’t have lived experience of systemic racism, prejudice and being on the receiving end of unconscious bias are also less likely to notice these issues in the first place.

Learning to recognise signs of racism and having the courage to act upon them is crucial.

White trustees have a responsibility to call out behaviour that is discriminatory – such as a trustee persistently being sidelined, or only asked their opinion on issues as they relate to a particular racial group – not wait for someone else to do it before offering support.

As well as challenging discriminatory behaviours, we must actively listen to all trustees. It’s easy to hear the dominant majority, but it can take more effort to give others the floor, listen and then amplify their voices.

So often, we inadvertently pay less attention to those with different characteristics and lived experiences than our own: erasing the objectivity, creativity and rich insight that different trustees bring.

Systemic anti-racism

Unless we redesign our systems to minimise unfairness, as well as correct our behaviours, we are unlikely to achieve more equal outcomes.

The refreshed Charity Governance Code includes recommended practice about introducing systems that can help achieve change.

Start looking at how your board creates barriers to people of colour. What systems and unconscious biases might be contributing to this?

Be willing to feel uncomfortable, learn to talk about race, and commit to educating yourself so you can see your actions from a different perspective and set concrete actions to change the systems you have in place.

Cultural anti-racism

Changes to organisational culture need to come from the top, and it’s important for boards to set a marker for what is and is not acceptable. Many boards have a code of conduct for trustee behaviour.

But do the standards we set ourselves encompass building inclusive as well as diverse boards?

Cultural change takes time, but it isn’t impossible: and we don’t have to wait until there is a black or Asian person in the room before becoming an ally.

Demonstrate to potential trustees that you are willing to put in the effort to make them feel invited, empowered and valued, and that you don’t expect them to lead the charge or fight the battle alone.

Identifying actions that result in unfairness and inequality towards people who are marginalised in society and under-represented on our boards – and taking steps to address them – can be as much a part of every charity’s work as our core mission.

Lynn Cadman is Getting on Board’s interim chief executive while Penny Wilson is on leave


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