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Charity Board Diversity: When it Doesn’t Work

Sara Fernandez

03 November 2020

Inclusion is not simply existing in a space, it is thriving and belonging. Our day 3 theme for #TrusteesWeek2020 is therefore to highlight the voices that are at the sharp end of exclusion on boards. We teamed up with Oxford Hubs to bring this blog.

Over the past four years, Oxford Hub has been supporting younger people to join trustee boards. With the average age of board members north of 60, we wanted to support charities to bring in new voices and perspectives to the governance conversation.

Cohort 7 of the Hub Trustee Programme is now in motion, and there are lots of fantastic stories of young people joining boards across Oxfordshire. However, this Trustees Week we wanted to reflect about those instances when things have not worked out.  Despite this positive trajectory across trustee boards over the past few years, we wanted to reflect on things that have not worked out, so that we can know where to turn our energies next. Unfortunately, young people still face many barriers to joining a board, but the better we understand the nature of those barriers, the more we can work to effectively overcome them.

We have spoken to five different young people, some of whom took part in the Young Trustee Programme over the past four years, others who have joined boards where there was no training and support available. All experiences have been anonymised because this is not intended as a particular criticism of any board or organisation. Instead, we hope it can provide charities with some ideas about how they can welcome new voices to their boards.

The very basic matter of meeting timings

When board members are retired or not juggling full time work or a young family, their schedules are less busy.  We find a lot of charities regularly schedule trustee meetings during the working day. This is harder for younger people at the beginning of their careers, as they are likely to have less control over their work schedule or any flexibility. As one young trustee puts it:

I had to use quite a lot of annual leave this year (I think 5 out of 25 days, despite my work being fairly flexible about things) and that does put a strain on things. This would definitely be challenging if I had children or a condition where I needed time off, thinking from a diversity perspective. The staff have been very accommodating but the board are quite stuck in a Wednesday morning board meeting mindset which is better suited to those who aren't working and don't have care commitments.

This is not to say that meetings outside working hours would suit everyone, however, when working with volunteer board members, it is important that boards find a compromise. We have seen charities that alternate the timings of their meetings, or schedule them towards the end of the working day e.g. 4pm to 6pm, to avoid the issue around working trustees having to use their annual leave.

Having realistic expectations about time commitment and availability

Beyond the timing of the meetings, charities need to have a wider conversation about what commitment is expected from board members. When we train new trustees, we spend a significant amount of time reflecting on the legal responsibilities involved in the role and discussing what it entails to fulfil those responsibilities to a high standard. Trustee programme participants know that taking on the role will be a significant time commitment.

It is important that boards reflect on the expectations placed on trustees, particularly around involvement beyond the traditional governance responsibilities – and how accessible the role might be to people who are not retired.

I found it very challenging balancing full-time work alongside the extra expectations involved beyond trustee meetings – including participating in staff recruitment and attending extra workshops for some of the work the charity is developing. It was made clear that this level of involvement was a non-negotiable for trustees to appropriately fulfil this role as it was seen at this charity. This was not viable for me, and so I had to quit. It was a shame because I really believe in the work the charity does, but I couldn’t keep up with the rest of trustees who did not have full time jobs.

When people have the freedom and flexibility to dedicate many hours to a board, that can bring huge value to any charity. However, this should not be a requirement for a voluntary role. We would like to see a more open conversation about how trustee roles can be built around people’s availability, and how to do that in a way that is inclusive and does not create different perceived levels of seniority amongst trustees within a board.

Who does the burden of diversity fall upon?

When a new member of the board joins the board and is from a different background than the rest of the board, it is common to see this person as the new ‘diversity champion’. For the new member who takes on this role, this can feel like a having too much responsibility– not only are they getting to grips with their new role and the organisation, but the onus falls on them to work out how to improve the charity’s diversity. A young person talks about this challenge, and encourages a ‘whole board’ approach instead:

All the trustees need to actively be ‘on board’ with diversity and widening inclusivity, otherwise the ownership lies too heavily on the one or two people really championing it, which can result in tokenism or tick box exercises.

This is something echoed by other new trustees who bring new voices and perspectives to their boards:

I really want more people like me (in terms of lived experience) to be represented on this board, but I cannot do it all myself, I can highlight the barriers I have faced in my trustee role, but I would like the rest of the board to be involved in addressing those barriers too!

What happens when you are the ‘odd one out’?

Finally, a very basic reminder about board diversity: when the existing group of trustees is not particularly diverse, it makes it even harder to welcome and meaningfully integrate different voices into a trustee board. This may go unnoticed by some boards, as a young person told us:

As a young immigrant woman, it was actually really intimidating to join five white men in their sixties at a board meeting. Another young trustee joined the board soon after me, but we were not able to really settle into our roles. It felt that things were being discussed outside of trustee meetings and we were not being updated on. I don’t think it was malicious in any way, it was probably just due to their prior knowledge of the charity and how long they had been working together. At the end, both of us decided to quit. I saw that the charity is  recruiting for trustees again, but I think they need to re-think their approach more fundamentally if they are going to successfully welcome new members to the board.

Running a high-quality induction process is the basic foundation to improve diversity at any organisation. It is important for organisations to reflect about how their induction processes really welcome new voices, and how you can build the space for those new members to really contribute to the organisation. Finally, it is essential to remember that recruiting diverse new members is a crucial part of improving diversity, but this is not ‘done’ once new members have joined the board. Existing trustees must take responsibility to continue to advance the diversity agenda, and ensure new voices are being heard and integrated in the organisation.

What next at Oxford Hub’s Trustee Programme.

We recently welcomed 18 new trustees to the Hub Trustees Programme for our seventh cohort. Based on our learning over the past few years, we have made some significant changes, to focus on broader markers of diversity. While age is still really important, and already brings new perspectives to boards, there are many other aspects of diversity we want to focus on. The priority is to find trustees who can bring new voices to charity boards, whether because of their background or their life experiences.

We are aware that bringing new voices to boards can be difficult, both for boards but also for participants who may find themselves taking on a challenging new role. Over the next few months we will be supporting boards to explore ways in which they can more effectively welcome different perspectives, and we will continue to support Cohort 7 as they settle into their new board roles across Oxfordshire.

What is normal isn't right - and we need your help to change it

We need your help to change boardroom culture, so that others don't experience the same challenges mentioned in this blog.

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