Note: the browser you are using is out of date and this website may not work properly. Please upgrade your web browser.

blog • Story

Anonymous Interview: Why Not Young Trustees

Mita Desai

09 February 2021

People have been talking about the importance of inclusion and diversity on boards for decades, however not everyone is on board. To understand why this might be, we interviewed a veteran trustee and Chair, with over 30 years of experience who has previously disagreed that Boards must pursue diversity, including young trustees without question. He felt that while board diversity undoubtedly makes sense ideologically, it can fail in practice. Below are three key reasons he raised for why board diversity isn't working:

1. The boardroom can never reflect your community fully

Anonymous: “I often hear people peddling the line - does your Boardroom reflect your community of stakeholders and beneficiaries? I take this question seriously, and it is impossible to fully represent a whole community without being tokenistic.”

Mita: “I 100% agree, a boardroom can never fully represent its community, unless it’s a community of 10 or so people! I’m definitely guilty of over simplifying and peddling out this statement, in fact you will see it in most of our branding. But, that doesn’t negate the fact that the greater diversity of perspectives a Board has, the stronger it is for it and we should strive for at least some strong representation (many Boards have none when it comes to the communities they serve). Your reflection on the oversimplification of this question makes me think that we should change it to sub-questions such as:

  • Is your board recruitment accessible to your community? For example, does the job advert state the applicant requires 10 years of experience and therefore limits who can apply?
  • What knowledge is being valued when we are conducting our trustees skills audit?
  • Do I understand and value a diversity of perspectives from individuals from diverse communities, ages, life experience?

Anonymous: “Yes, I think these would be much better questions. However that does not solve how the insights of the community (and particularly our service users) are brought to the board. One person with lived experience of something, should never and can never represent the lived experience of an entire demographic. Surely the board should be using summaries of insights that reflect a whole demographic in their decision making? For example the board using insights from things like working groups, surveys, etc?”.

Mita: “I also agree that the insights of the community, particularly service users, should be collected and integral to the work of an organisation including being shared with and/or part of the board in the way you outlined. We are definitely not advocating for people to say “I experienced X, therefore the board should do Y”. That is not the role of a trustee.

A diversity of views including lived experiences on a board sheds light on different perspectives and interpretations of the same information. What this means in reality is “I experienced x, this leads me to have Y perspective/question on Z”. This leads to less groupthink, deeper stretch and better management of risk and uncertainty.

Anonymous: “I agree and feel this nuance is so important in allowing the pursuit of non-tokenistic board diversification. It also allows us to explore how we can better reflect the community throughout all of our power structures, not just board level.”

2. Passion alone is not enough

Anonymous: “Passion is vital for a trustee, but it is not the only ingredient to a successful board. A successful board needs to have trustees who are prepared, for example to have actually read the board papers and work as a team rather than an individual. I find inexperienced trustees tend to have the passion but struggle with the latter.“

Mita: “Interesting point. We have spoken to many trustees, who regardless of background or age, struggled when they first joined their board. Boards will not automatically benefit from the fresh skills and insights a new trustee possesses. Creating a board which enables people to thrive is not easy, but it’s certainly worth it.

We have found that when a board looks into why their trustees are struggling and takes action, innovations are made to the board which benefit the board as a whole. Creating this change is not just down to needing the confidence to speak up. In order to support people to thrive, we need to ask:

  • What training can we offer?

Often we find that when boards think about how they might support a young person, this leads to them thinking about how this could be extended to the whole board.

  • How do we communicate and make decisions?

A personal example of this for me is that I am dyslexic, when I started reading board papers I could not retain the information I read and relate it into the board room. I only started to be able to read board papers effectively when I converted them into an audio file and then listened to them. This was transformative for me. Without this I would have probably given up as a trustee as I would have felt too useless. I am sure this tip would also help others who would then be able to combine a walk with preparing for their board meeting by listening to an audio file of their board papers!

  • Is the board culture inclusive and enable people to bring their full selves into the room?

The most common experience we hear from new trustees, regardless of age, is that when they step into a boardroom they are terrified by how intimidating it is. So much energy is put into proving to everyone in the room that you deserve to be there, that it means less energy is put into the actual conversation within the board room. Board cultures which allow you to bring your whole selves into a space, knowing that you are accepted and belong, are spaces which provide the conditions for thriving.”

Anonymous: “It goes back to my point on how I want to avoid tokenism. We need to do the work as a board, without it, it becomes a checkbox exercise. I also have no place for pretentiousness in my boardrooms. As a Chair I feel it is my duty to induct trustees, be an ally and create cultures to enable people to feel safe with their vulnerability. In my experience I have found the more openness you have in your boardroom culture, the more effective the meeting.”

3. Logistics matter

Anonymous: “Having first hand experience of young trustees on my board, it is clear that their diversity of perspectives is powerful and useful. It’s no doubt that the diversity of perspectives makes it a better board. My experience however, is that the logistics get in the way of this. For instance we have had a board where there were two younger trustees. One had a child and then found board meetings were too much to continue with and the other could not get time off work.”

Mita: “Logistics are huge and that’s also echoed by the stats. In a study conducted in collaboration with Ecclesiastical and Getting on Board, they found that when former Young Trustees were asked why they stopped being a trustee the main reasons given were “meeting times were inconvenient“ (29%) and “change in my circumstances” (29%).

This is because boardrooms statistically have a particular demographic they are centered around, without considering for example how they might be adapted to enable younger trustees. For example, evenings and weekends (generally and this differs person to person) tend to work better for young people. However most board meetings are bang in the middle of the work day. While this works for people who are senior in their career or retired, it excludes others.”

Anonymous: “Interesting, that makes me reflect on who has the privilege of being in the room. Personally I don’t need to have to be paid to be on a board. But I am thinking about others, who if we could offer a paid place, would that enable them to better access the boardroom?”

Mita: “That’s a great idea! I wish more Chairs asked this question as it is often unknown that you can pay trustees if it helps your board to be more representative and inclusive.”

Conclusion

When speaking to Anonymous (and the above was just a snippet of a much longer conversation about governance in general) it was clear he was passionate about high impact governance and ensuring the charities he serves are not only financially stable but delivering their mission.

I’m so glad we had this conversation, because if we were in a boardroom or in a conference, I may have mistakenly assumed he did not believe in or care about diversity. However, through our conversation, what is clear is that he was not against having young trustees or taking steps to diversify a board. His experiences had made him aware of the potential barriers and therefore wary of making this investment unless the necessary steps to enable them to be fully functioning members of the board were taken.

I asked Anonymous if the key issues were addressed in the way we had discussed, would he then be an advocate for Young Trustees in the boardroom. His answer was a solid yes.

I believe this conversation demonstrates that one reason for the lack of progress on diversity in our boardrooms, is a lack of deeper and open conversations. This is inspiring because the only thing it requires to change then is a willingness to have them! If you would like support to achieve this, I’d love to meet you at our next training. 

I hope this conversation inspires others to have deeper meaningful conversations, because only together can we create better, more inclusive governance.

Book a Training Session

Join a 1 hour training session to understand the power of young trustees, have a framework to understand how to approach board diversity and take practical next steps.