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Combining lived and professional experience on boards

By Daniel Seifu 3 March 2023 4 minute read

A recent seminar hosted by NPC, in partnership with the Clothworkers Company, explored how boards can combine lived and professional experience. The seminar sought to unpack how boards can create an inclusive, accessible and engaging culture that attracts and retains individuals with lived experience.  

Centering those with lived experience in governance and decision-making is something many charities are trying to do. There is considerable value in involving people who have lived experience of the issues a charity is tackling. Decisions that are made with people who are closer to these challenges have a better chance at being relevant, proportionate, agile and ultimately impactful.  

Embedding lived experience is a journey 

The event opened with the panel sharing the pioneering story of how Young Manchester, a local young people’s foundation and membership organisation, came to have an under-25 co-Chair on the board of trustees, and why this model of governance worked for them. For Young Manchester, they always knew they needed young people at the heart of governance, but getting it right was a process of trial and error.  

They initially began with a Young Ambassadors programme which upskilled and engaged local young people in projects run by the charity, enabling a small level of engagement with trustees. This was followed by a decision to invite a young ambassador to join the board as a trustee. However, as the panel explained, this was an unhelpful decision as it did little to tackle underlying power dynamics on the board.  

If you’re on the right side of a power imbalance it doesn’t feel too bad, but if you’re on the wrong side of it it clouds and influences everything you do and say in that environment.

Sarah Kleuter, co-Chair of Young Manchester

In response to this, the board created a small grant programme led by its young ambassadors to test out further power sharing, before formally writing into its governance structure that there must be three young trustees and a young co-chair. 

Young Manchester illustrates how an organisation can learn from their mistakes to improve their governance practice. Boards will not always make the right decisions when on this journey, but this is something to embrace with humility.  

Creating an inclusive culture of learning 

Two speakers with lived experience discussed why they had decided to get involved in charity governance and decision making. Both speakers highlighted that the journey to meaningfully involving someone with lived experience starts well before they join the organisation. Organisations who get the initial messaging right, and see lived experience involvement in decision-making as essential, have a better chance of attracting people with lived experience.  

It’s being humble enough to say we can’t do this without you.

Roukagia Afan, co-Chair of Young Manchester

One speaker explained that she felt comfortable enough to consider the co-Chair position at Young Manchester, because the team had provided plenty of opportunities for her to build strong relationships with senior staff and trustees. They also had the patience to answer questions and support her learning so that she could grow into the role. 

For another speaker, an inclusive culture involved moving away from a traditional culture of hierarchy, which enabled him and other people with lived experience to feel comfortable working directly with staff and trustees. One way this has been achieved at Beyond, a national youth mental health charity, is by having regular social catchups with staff, trustees, and other youth board members. He’s also been able to work directly with trustees and staff on specific issues through a variety of working groups. 

Both experiences illustrate the importance of valuing everyone’s contribution to the charity. Organisations should seek to invest time in building relationships with people with lived experience, to move towards creating an inclusive and accountable culture where they can thrive. 

Aligning values is crucial to avoiding tokenism 

Values are the guiding force of any organisation. They ensure ways of working with staff, trustees, beneficiaries and volunteers are aligned and on mission.  

During the event, one speaker identified three core values that guide the work they do and the expectations they have of the people around them.  

She highlighted the following values:  

  • Trust: which is vital when working with others and respecting confidentiality. 
  • Understanding: which can relate to being realistic about your capacity. 
  • Honesty: which is aboutbeing able to admit where you have gaps in knowledge and to ask for help when needed. 

Another panel member explained how the values of being inclusive, authentic and genuine were evident at Beyond and that this was one of the reasons why he chose to stay. As someone who’s had negative experiences of tokenistic approaches towards lived experience involvement, he spoke openly about his positive experience at Beyond as a youth ambassador.  

Avoiding tokenism is about creating space for people with lived experience to work across an organisation, not being pigeonholed by a predetermined notion of how and where they can support the charity. People are not defined by their lived experience and often have much more to offer. But organisations must be open to accepting this (working from a strengths-based approach) and acknowledging the breadth of skills and experience an individual can bring. By doing this, organisations can ensure people with lived experience are valued members of an inclusive team. 

Our next online seminar for trustees will be on navigating the cost-of-living crisis. Join us at this free event on 7 March 2023. 


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