Lynn Cadman: Improving disability representation on charity boards

If charities want to create genuinely diverse boards, we must design recruitment processes that actively empower disabled people

Disability is extremely common in the UK. One in five working age adults is disabled. Two in five people over the age of retirement are disabled. 

But although our sector is closely engaged with disability by way of support and campaigning, the level of disability representation on charity boards appears relatively low.

Given the average age of the trustee board, you would expect at least three in 10 trustees to have a disability. 

We don’t have particularly strong evidence to show how many trustees are disabled, which is perhaps in itself quite telling. 

But even taking into account that not all disabilities are visible, we can be relatively sure that less than 30 per cent of the average board is disabled.

If we want trustee boards to be representative of the communities we serve, then disabled people should, if anything, be overrepresented on charity boards. 

But in practical terms, disabled people face barriers to becoming trustees at every stage of the journey. 

Some barriers are created by society well before they ever get close to a board. Others are placed in their way by charities themselves. Together, they form a formidable barrier. 

If charities want to create genuinely diverse and representative boards, we need to design recruitment processes that actively empower disabled people. 

Barriers 

One barrier is disability itself. Disability can affect health or energy levels, or make it harder to see or hear, or hamper spoken or written communication.

Disabled individuals might find it harder to travel to meetings. In either of these cases, trusteeship is likely to be more difficult.

A secondary set of barriers exists around education and employment. A high percentage of charity trustees have a postgraduate qualification, and charities actively recruit for these qualifications – particularly for finance and legal skills. 

If you are disabled, you face barriers to getting a postgraduate qualification and yet more barriers to getting a job, meaning disabled people are statistically less likely to develop the skills and CVs that charities say they are looking for when they come to recruit.

Employment history also has an impact on personal wealth. Trustees are predominantly wealthier than the average person, presumably because wealth offers the time and security to devote to unpaid work.

But disabled people tend to have lower incomes because of the barriers to education and work.

Employment and education have an effect on disabled individuals’ access to personal networks. We know that charities recruit board members largely through the personal networks of existing trustees.

So disabled people face another barrier, as they don’t have access to the same networks.

Above and beyond all this, there are prejudice and bias.

Even if disabled people seek to become board members, or become board members, they are likely to face prejudice from other individuals involved in the process. 

We know that both conscious and unconscious bias are rife in trustee recruitment, and both are bad news for disabled people seeking a trusteeship. 

Even with good intentions, charities can be concerned about the cost and impact on their working practices that arise from the changes needed to empower disabled trustees to participate fully. 

Disabled people miss out, and so do charities that would benefit from the invaluable insights and resilience that disabled trustees would bring.  

Solutions 

First, pay attention to the problem. If chief executives and trustees feel it is important to have representative levels of disabled people on their board, it will happen.

The chances are that most boards have simply not given the issue much thought.

The second solution is to make changes in the recruitment process.

When recruiting for a board we have more latitude than when recruiting for a paid role. Good practice in paid work is to guarantee an interview to disabled individuals making an application, and to use blind CVs to screen out prejudicial information. 

This might help a little, but will not lead to proportionate levels of disabled individuals on boards. 

To get more disabled people onto boards, we need to actively recruit.

We need to work with specialists with good networks in the field of disability, approach suitable individuals, ask them to get involved, and demonstrate that we are serious about supporting them to serve as a trustee well.

Retention 

Finally, a word about retention. 

Recruiting disabled people, then, means making reasonable adjustment for disability, and ensuring that the culture is welcoming.

That includes tailoring the support that is provided to individual trustees (and not just assuming we know what this is), and changing our working practices so that disabled people can engage at board level as fully as anyone else around the table.  

It means thinking not just about whether a meeting site has wheelchair access, for example, but how easy the building is to get to and whether there is a station or parking space nearby. 

It means producing board papers that use straightforward language or graphics to make their content easy to understand, or that are compatible with tech that a disabled trustee might use.

It means circulating board papers in plenty of time so that trustees don’t have to read them all on one day. Actually, these adjustments can also benefit others on the board. 

In too many cases, charities make an effort to recruit new people to create more representative boards, and then do nothing whatsoever to change the board culture and accommodate new individuals.

It’s not enough to recruit well. You must also retain well.

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

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