Don’t vote at elections—the politicians don’t serve your interests anyway, as they’re all part of a posh elite. This was the message from comedian Russell Brand when he appeared on Newsnight in an interview that has now gone viral. I was left wondering: if Brand is right, and we do need to look to other places to find truly diverse representation of our interests, could such a place be civil society?
This week is Trustees’ Week, and the third sector is talking about all the great work being done by the UK’s over 580,000 charity trustees. There have been some interesting stories shared and I was pleased to find another reason for the voluntary sector to pat itself on the back—it’s a shining example when it comes to an equal gender distribution on boards: 48% of charity trustees are women.
However, there are still significant elephants in the room when it comes to charity governance. When the chair position opens up, it seems some of those women melt away: only 30% of trustee chairs are female. And I suspect that when you take away the charities that are largely dominated by women trustees, such as playgroup and parent teacher associations, the number is much lower.
An even more dominant filter is ethnicity: only 3% of chairs are not white. Bearing in mind that one in six Britons are non-white, that number is disturbingly low. A third demographic gap on charity boards is age. Despite initiatives such as Young Charity Trustees, only 2% of trustees are under 30. Considering a large part of the voluntary sector works with children and young people, it seems surprising that these groups don’t have more of a role in the governance of the sector.
Now, I’m not suggesting that young, non-white women can’t possibly be represented by the typical 60-year-old, white male trustee—of course the most important thing is the skills the trustee brings to the board. But I do think that Brand has done us a timely favour by encouraging us to think about who represents us—and how these people come to do so. NPC’s review of trusteeship back in 2009 identified that the recruitment, training and evaluation of board members is frequently neglected and it seems clear that as a sector we need to seriously consider what systemic barriers or glass ceilings we need to address to ensure diversity at board level.
We’ve been working with The Clothworkers’ Company since 2010 to promote good trusteeship—for both current and prospective trustees alike. Our next seminar is a back to basics session exploring what being a trustee means and we hope this will encourage a wide range of people to consider the role. But engaging new trustees and upgrading their skills is only part of the solution. We need to start talking about what we’re missing out on when there’s a lack of diversity in civil society governance and we need to consider how we can help the underrepresented gain the voice they deserve.