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What’s the evidence that white older men make effective trustees?

Mita Desai

29 October 2020

“In theory it sounds lovely to have white, cis, able-bodied, middle-class, older men on boards. In practice however, I am not sure trustee boards are the right place for them. Is there actually any evidence that we need them on our board?" Sound wrong? Read on..

“I support equality and in theory it sounds great to have white, cis, able-bodied, middle-class, older men on boards. In practice however, I am not sure trustee boards are the right place for them. I am sure they can volunteer in other ways (like giving money and sharing contacts) but is there actually any evidence that we need them on our board?”

“I was once in a meeting with a white man and he spent the entire time talking over people. At a time where we have so much to deal with, I actually think having them at such high level conversations is more hassle than it’s worth“.

Does the above sound ridiculous? Of course it does.

There are so many brilliant insights and perspectives that people from this demographic brings to boards. More than that, they are not simply one one group -  people within this demographic have different kinds of skill and passions and may make:

  • amazing trustees
  • rubbish trustees
  • average trustees

To write off all white men from boards is ridiculous and nonsensical as it is based on stereotypes and ignorance. Unfortunately, we often hear this same narrative when we talk about the need for diversity on charity boards.

The real question is, if it is so ridiculous to exclude a whole demographic of people based on stereotypes, why does it happen?

1. Confusion over the purpose of governance

Diversity on boards is an essential, not a nice to have. The Governance Code states “diversity, in the widest sense, is essential for boards to stay informed and responsive and to navigate the fast-paced and complex changes facing the voluntary sector. Boards whose trustees have different backgrounds and experience are more likely to encourage debate and to make better decisions”. However, many boards prioritise gaining contacts and free labour over diversity of thought. This confusion leads to boards undermining the key function of a charity board (check out our article on why many boards are actually an undercover unpaid internship here.)

2. It disrupts the status quo

The path of least resistance is to stick with what currently happens, and be closed off to change. Whereas innovation requires you to disrupt the status quo and be open to seeing things differently.

An example of resisting change is if a chair of a board said: “I don’t think it is fair to put a young person on a board - it can be a very intimidating space”.

An example of innovation is to say “This board can be an intimidating space - let’s change that”. This would enable a shift in the board’s culture to make it more inclusive and less stuffy. This culture shift benefits everyone on the board as it means being less concerned about how to fit in, and therefore more focused on the actual boardroom discussion. It would also allow for trustees to have more constructive conversations through being more comfortable to state when they disagreed with each other or didn’t understand something. This is the innovation we have seen by many boards who have done the work to meaningfully recruit Young Trustees.

In this example, if the chairs and trustees weren’t open to seeing things differently, they would have stopped at “it can be a very intimidating space”. They would therefore not have recruited a Young Trustee and missed out on an opportunity to innovate and improve the culture in their boardroom.

3. Power holders who hear “diversity”, think “shame” and feel attacked

While you get a lot from a trusteeship, you rarely meet a trustee who volunteers for the benefits to themself alone. They do it because they care.

It hurts to hear you are part of a problematic system that benefits you - that pain is real.

So, when you are giving up your free time to do something good and then you hear that you are benefiting from a problematic system - it hurts even more. There are then two things you can then do:

  • Feel shame, which may lead you to feel attacked and want to defend yourself and the status quo. By doing this you are choosing to continue excluding diverse perspectives from the boardroom.
  • Listen, and commit to being part of the solution. By choosing to embark on a journey of change, we choose to be more aligned with your values and to champion better, more inclusive governance.

The fact that we often refer to is that less than 3% of trustees are under 30, while 1 in 12 are called either John or David. It does not mean that Johns and Davids would not make good trustees - we also need them to be part of our movement! It simply aims to highlight that we are systematically missing out on great talent.

What will you choose to do next?

WE NEED YOU to create and champion better governance.  We are making the first step to this simple - come to our free 1 hour workshop. 

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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.