Penny Wilson: Charity boards have failed on race

Most people in the sector would be appalled at the insinuation they are racist, but our trustee boards tell a different story

Penny Wilson
Penny Wilson

It’s time for charity leaders and boards to take a long, hard look at themselves. Do you work or volunteer in this sector because you believe in justice and equality of opportunity? Because you wanted to do something for society?

For most of us, working or volunteering in this sector is a labour of love.

So how can it be that in 2020 we're still recruiting charity boards using the Victorian model of the privileged (white) rich looking after the deserving (all colours) poor.

Given that 14 per cent of the population is made up of people of colour, should we be uncomfortable that only 8 per cent of trustees are from that group, according to the report Taken on Trust, commissioned by the Charity Commission? Or that just 6 per cent of trustees of the largest 500 charities are people of colour, according to Inclusive Boards, with women of colour representing only 2.9 per cent of trustees? If you were to take out charities founded or led by people of colour, these figures would plummet even further.

You bet your life we should feel uncomfortable about this. It runs contrary to the values that most of us hold dear.

It’s also an epic own goal. Diverse boards are more effective. Research proves it, but it is also just common sense. A board needs brilliant ideas, sensible challenge, a solid sounding board, influence in a wide range of networks, an array of professional expertise and a personal understanding of the challenges your charity seeks to tackle. If you want these things, would you recruit a load of people from similar personal and professional backgrounds? No, I thought not.

Our failure when it comes to race doesn’t end at recruitment, either. Research we undertook at Getting on Board recently uncovered the terrible treatment of people of colour once they are on charity boards. This chimes with Acevo’s Home Truths report on the experience of charity staff of colour.

We were told: “As soon as an Asian or black person puts out their views, they are openly and subtly ignored.”

And: “I left a trustee role because I felt intimidated around lots of white people. Your voice is undermined and you feel like a minority. If you ask too many questions, you feel like you are being demanding. It also just felt like a tick-box exercise. I was like a silent member of the board. There were a lot of power dynamics due to race issues.”

Our participants described this as personally mortifying, but it also led to a deep concern that they wouldn’t be able to make an impact on the causes they cared about.

Many charity leaders have never thought before about the diversity of their trustee boards. They’re too busy running their charities. They would argue that they didn’t make active decisions to exclude people in some way. And most people in our sector would be appalled by the insinuation that they are racist.

But let’s own this. We have monumentally dropped the ball and now we need to do something about it. Let’s be brave, stick our necks out and start to make change.

Here are a few things you can do right away.

Look at the racial diversity of your own board. If you have one or more trustees of colour, you are on the right road. If you don't, insist that the next time you recruit trustees it is done professionally, openly and with proper process. Most trustees are still recruited informally: this is the biggest barrier to diversifying our boards.

When you advertise, say that you would particularly welcome applications from people of colour because you are looking to diversify your board. This powerful sentence gives people the confidence to apply where they otherwise assume they won’t be welcome. One of our recent focus group participants said they thought that trusteeship was “bestowed upon people when they have a lot of influence, power and success: I didn’t know you could apply to be a trustee”.

Don't put barriers in people's way. Do your new trustees absolutely have to have previous board experience? You’re fishing in a predominantly white (and older, male) pool if you insist on that.

Perhaps most importantly of all, make a targeted effort to advertise in places where people of colour will see the advert. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of networks specifically for professionals of colour, for example. But even advertising openly on social media and widely in your communities will vastly increase your chances of attracting applications (much better than the chair asking members of his golf club).

Think about recruiting more than one new trustee of colour. It’s not that great as a new trustee to have to walk into a trustee meeting where everyone knows each other, looks like each other and has been around a while so knows the charity’s acronyms and history. It’s much easier to speak out, challenge and learn if you’re not the only new trustee.

If you do have trustees of colour, do they contribute as much as the other trustees? Are they being listened to? Are they sticking around? If not, the problem is most likely at your end, not theirs.

All of this is going to rely heavily on white (and predominantly older, male) trustees having the balls to make change. So I’m challenging you to lead the charge.

And if you want to see change on a scale beyond your own charity, support those of us campaigning for sector-wide change: Malcolm John and his team of volunteers at Action for Trustee Racial Diversity, Precious Sithole at Beyond Suffrage and our work at Getting on Board.

It’s time to start now.

Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting on Board, a charity that focuses on trustee recruitment

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