With trustees placed in the crosshairs of new fundraising regulation, to what extent is diversity on charity boards crucial to the future of the sector? Five experts have their say
Judi Rhys, CEO at Arthritis Care:
Charity bashing has become quite a favourite sport among certain sections of the media in recent years. The high-profile demise of Kids Company, together with the reports of poor fundraising practices, has created plenty of fuel for that particular fire.
The roles and responsibilities of charity trustees are now well and truly in the spotlight, to the extent that many prospective trustees are thinking twice about putting themselves forward. But, despite all the media hoo-ha, it’s important to remember that trustee responsibilities have actually not changed over the last ten years.
At Arthritis Care, we are here for everyone living with all forms of arthritis, whether recently diagnosed or not. So, it’s important for us to have a board that reflects that. We are mindful that we need to recruit a diverse board, and not just fish in a small pool. And it’s vitally important that all our board members understand and reflect our values, which include never losing sight of what it means to live with arthritis, being inclusive and being person-centred.
Passion for the cause is important, but so is competency – we need to work hard at getting the best out of everyone on the board. While we score well on some aspects of diversity, including a wide age range, and a good gender balance, we still have work to do on other indices.
In terms of diversity, all boards need to ask is – are we really as good as we could be?
Caro Hart MBA FRSA, CEO of WAY Widowed & Young:
Part of the reason for this current all-time low in public trust is that the public don’t think that charity management is transparent or accountable; they don’t know why decisions are made and by whom.
One way to tackle this distrust is to ensure that trustees are representative of the local communities served by the charity – up to and including trustees who are themselves service users or beneficiaries of the charity. This ensures that when strategic or financial decisions are made, they are based on an understanding of the needs and wants of the people the charity serves. It also allows for a good flow of information from the trustee board to the community and service users.
The nature of the diversity depends on the charity and the community it serves; it could be diversity of age and gender, or a diverse range of people from community cultures and ethnicities. It could be that a trustee board needs trustees with a wide range of experience or backgrounds.
WAY takes an approach that is almost unique in my experience; its trustees are all beneficiaries of the charity; all have been bereaved of a partner when under 50 years of age.
Asheem Singh, interim chief executive at ACEVO:
For too long the charity sector has failed fully to explain or address its lack of diversity at board and CEO level, which lags behind the diversity of the nation as a whole.
Frequently we hear that the talent pool of BAME or disabled candidates is just too shallow. The problem goes up to the sector’s own regulator; when challenged about the lack of diversity on the Charity Commission’s Board at a recent Lords Select Committee appearance, its chairman William Shawcross said that there had been a lack of “ethnic applicants” in a recent round of recruitment. This attitude belongs to the old boys’ club.
The charity sector needs to realise that they not only do their beneficiaries a disservice when they do not appropriately reflect them, but they harm their future fundraising potential. A charity sector whose leadership is unrepresentative will not be an attractive investment for international or diaspora philanthropists. Quite understandably, they will look elsewhere.
That is why we need to identify and support the talent that is already within the sector. We need to call out boards that are rife with unacceptably antiquated practices and attitudes – including that of the regulator itself. Only then will we achieve step change and social justice.
Anne Heal, board chair of Volunteering Matters:
Diverse boards make the wisest decisions.
I’ve noticed an increased awareness of the importance of board-level diversity in recent years, in both the voluntary sector and the private sector. This is a very welcome change. A homogenous board can more easily become out of touch with the people that it exists to serve, and more prone to group think.
Critics may argue that diversity at the top of an organisation is just window dressing – but I don’t agree. I think diversity across age, gender, race, background and skill set is crucial. Organisations serve diverse communities, so it makes sense that they need to hear from a range of voices in order to solve problems effectively and make wise decisions.
A carefully constructed and diverse board generates productive discussion and healthy debate. Every organisation needs to question the status quo and test whether or not it still works for the communities it serves. In our fast-moving society, things change quickly and we need fresh ideas to address these changes. A diverse board is more representative of society as a whole and therefore better equipped to view problems from several different angles.
Board diversity is not a silver bullet, but it is emphatically worth aiming for. Board meetings need to be a place of healthy challenge, debate and competing views. Making the best strategic decisions is not easy – but, for the sake of society as a whole, it is absolutely worth aiming for.
Karl Wilding, director of public policy and volunteering at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO):
The negative news coverage over the past year has reminded us of the importance of living up to the standards the public expect of us. Crucially, this means living our values in every aspect of our work. We need to regularly review how we do things, and make sure our processes are in line with our aims and values. Diversity is central to that, and an area where there is clearly room for improvement.
This includes making sure that opportunities, including leadership positions, are truly accessible to everyone. And we will be stronger for it – after all, diversity is a crucial driver of effectiveness and innovation. Increasing the diversity of trustee boards is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the best thing to do for our organisations.
This is why I’m glad that the new charity governance code devotes an entire section to diversity. In line with the spirit of the code, NCVO has recently worked with The Advocacy Project to produce an easy-read version of our Good Trustee Guide .
We hope that this new version will help more people with learning disabilities to become charity trustees, and support those who already are.
Of course there’s still more to be done, but I’m confident that charities will be eager to improve their governance structures and enable a more diverse range of people to join their trustee boards.