Penny Wilson: Do older, white, well-off professionals make better trustees?

The single biggest misconception in trustee recruitment is that there is a choice between diversity or skills

Penny Wilson

Those of us who work in trustee recruitment regularly hear charity leaders bemoan that they can’t recruit younger trustees: trustees earlier in their careers, trustees with new-fangled jobs, trustees with tattoos (yes, I’ve really heard this one), trustees with lived experience of what their charity is tackling.

They say they are not able to hire trustees who are not like them, because: “We really need people with skills.”

The single biggest misconception in trustee recruitment is that there is a choice between diversity or skills.

This is bonkers.

Given that two-thirds of trustees are aged over 50, 92 per cent are white, 60 per cent hold a professional qualification, two-thirds are male, and three-quarters are from households above the national median for household income, are you telling me that all useful trustee skills, knowledge and experience exist among older, white, wealthier (straight, able-bodied?), professional blokes?

No, I didn’t think so.

It’s true that other potential trustees’ experience might not have been gained through 40 years in a professional services firm.

It might be through campaigning, living through personal challenges, working in the NHS, running their own business, working at the forefront of digital developments or serving as a social worker.

Exactly what experience is going to be helpful depends on the organisation, but one sort of experience is not objectively more valuable than the others.

Why aren’t our boards more mixed?

Every time we ask someone in our network to become a trustee alongside us (still the most common way of recruiting trustees), we generally end up recruiting someone who has quite a lot in common with us.

If your organisation is forward-thinking enough to be recruiting its trustees openly, that’s fantastic.

But remember that it is not really open recruitment if the advert is only shared within our existing networks. The same applies if it is terrifyingly legal, or if it sets criteria that some parts of society are much more likely to be able to meet than others (such as having been a trustee before).

Why do we think some people make better trustees than others?

We have a skewed sense of the best trustees already having status in society, normally through their professional day job.

When the whole board is chock-full of similar people, it just confirms our biases that this is the only sort of person we need as trustees.

Any homogeneous board runs the risk of groupthink. But given that our organisations tackle the most difficult social and environmental matters, surely we can’t take the best decisions without having the most relevant, targeted mix of expertise at our disposal, including the expertise of the people most affected by the issues.

What next, trustees?

Use your position to ensure that your charity’s next round of trustee recruitment fishes from broader pools of talent.

It might be one of the very best things you do for the strength, resilience and relevance of the organisation.

Take your position at the forefront of this board revolution, which calls out short-sighted, closed trustee recruitment practices in a sector that exists for the disenfranchised then essentially bars them from our boards.

And to those of you already conducting quiet revolutions in your board rooms, I salute you.

Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting on Board

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