Zoe Amar: We can't fix the digital skills gap on boards without tackling diversity

The sector adapted rapidly during the pandemic, yet there is still inertia on some trustee boards. Will disruption come fast enough?

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

At the start of Trustees Week today, I wanted to reflect on my experiences. 

I first became a trustee when I was in my mid-20s and have 13 years’ experience of sitting on boards and undertaking other non-executive roles in the sector. It’s been a formative part of my life. 

I owe the skills I’ve developed in lateral thinking, influencing and strategy to my experiences as a trustee. 

I have always associated being a trustee with growth and learning. Yet when it comes to digital skills this isn’t happening consistently across the sector, which concerns me.

In this year’s Charity Digital Skills Report, charities told us that their most urgent need was for their board and chief executive to provide a clear vision of what digital could help them achieve. 

But more than half of charities (58 per cent) believed that their board had low digital skills or room for improvement, and while this has improved since last year, close to seven out of 10 charities (68 per cent) were unclear on or did not have a plan for how to grow these skills. 

Only 11 per cent of organisations were upskilling their trustees, with just 2 per cent investing in training. Just 8 per cent were planning to recruit a digital trustee, despite the skills gap. 

There is clearly a need: and while some boards have improved their digital skills, not enough have an appetite for change. The data on diversity tells a similar story. According to the Charity Commission’s research, 92 per cent of trustees are white, two-thirds are male and the average age is between 55 and 64. 

Reach Volunteering has also carried out research in this area, which found that young people were less likely to be appointed and, shockingly, white applicants were almost twice as likely to be appointed as Black and Asian applicants.

The sector has adapted rapidly during the pandemic, yet there is still inertia on some trustee boards. It’s a sign that disruption is needed – but will it come fast enough? 

My experience as a trustee and woman of colour is that there is still a long way to go on inclusion. 

While the charities I am proud to be currently supporting in a non-exec capacity have worked hard to create an inclusive environment where everyone feels listened to and valued, this has not always been my experience in previous roles. 

There was the recruitment consultant who approached me about a trustee role when my children were a toddler and a new baby, and asked me how I would juggle it with my childcare responsibilities. Do new dads get asked that question? 

The problem doesn’t end with recruitment. It’s about what happens when you get onto the board. 

In the past I’ve been in some board meetings where the experiences of white male colleagues were listened to and valued more than mine. 

In one role I repeatedly tried to engage the chair about diversity,  pointing out that I was the only person of colour on the board. My advice was ignored and I decided to take my skills elsewhere. It was a horrible, isolating experience. 

I think attitudes to diversity and digital are linked. 

Both involve the mindset shift of overcoming resistance to change, understanding people's needs, and learning about different perspectives. 

We cannot solve one problem without tackling the other.

So what should boards do? I would like to see more open and inclusive recruitment. Reach has some excellent advice and resources to help you with this, along with Action for Trustee Racial Diversity’s recruitment guide. 

Chairs need to keep growing their skills in running inclusive meetings. We found some chairs were doing this brilliantly in the research we did about boards and digital skills last year. 

I hope they build on these valuable skills and that other chairs learn from them. 

Diversity, like digital, is an iterative process, which requires constantly reviewing what you are doing against your goals and asking yourself how you can do it better. This is a frank conversation that your board needs to have regularly. 

Diverse teams can help improve your performance and bottom line. 

As we plan for life after the pandemic we all need to ask ourselves who we need around the board table to get there, and how we can attract the perspectives and skills that are critical for our future. 

Zoe Amar is founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar

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