Two women in a meeting

How to improve diversity and inclusion on trustee boards

By Margery Infield 21 May 2020 3 minute read

This blog shares the thoughts of four charity leaders who spoke at an NPC and Clothworkers’ Company seminar back in 2019. At this event, the speakers discussed their experiences of recruiting and supporting a diverse mix of trustees.

Many charities—including NPC—recognise that a lack of diversity on their trustee board is an issue. However, some charities still haven’t confronted this subject, and even then, recognition of the issue does not always lead to effective action. Trustees need to consider how they recruit onto their boards and how they support diverse trustees.

Making the case for diversity

The charity leaders who spoke at our 2019 seminar agreed that it’s still necessary to make the case for action on diverse and inclusive trustee boards. Arvinda Gohil, Chief Executive of Central YMCA, expressed her deep frustration that progress on trustee board diversity has been so slow. She said that the charity sector, as with other sectors, has been discussing it for decades—yet the charity sector is failing to make the same progress on diversity and inclusion as the private sector.

I feel frustrated, disappointed and angry that we still have to come together to talk about this issue…What really disappoints me is that we as a sector should be leading the way, but we’re not.

Sophie Livingstone, Managing Director of the trustee recruitment agency, Trustees Unlimited, expressed concern that some boards are treating diversity and inclusion as a ‘tick box’ exercise, and that they are not recognising the drawbacks of having a board of trustees without diversity.

Many boards aren’t willing to take a chance on people who don’t fit all of their preconceptions.

The argument for inclusion

This was echoed by Jo Wells, Director of Blagrave Trust, which has worked to dramatically shift the age demographic of its board, to reflect the people served by the organisations they fund. This is a positive step forward for their board of trustees and one clear example of the benefits of embracing diversity. Jo said that one of the reasons that only 0.8% of trustees across the charity sector are under 25 years old is that boards are reluctant to recruit someone with limited professional experience­—even when they have relevant life experience. Tackling entrenched attitudes on your board can be challenging, however the improved diversity of thought on the board, and the inclusion of those with a sense of what your beneficiaries are facing, will be advantageous.

Roger Harding, Chief Executive of Reclaim and a trustee of Victim Support, urged everyone to think practically about what arguments will be persuasive for their own trustee boards. This is because diversifying your board will likely involve asking some existing trustees to relinquish power. In Roger’s experience, explaining the business case for diversity and inclusion and framing the argument as a risk mitigation strategy is often compelling.

The more diverse we are as a board, the more likely we are to recognise potential issues early, andif we do make a mistakethe more likely people are to believe it is a genuine mistake.

Reconsidering recruitment practices

Finding someone who is the right fit for the board can be difficult for trustees. But trustees should be actively looking for currently underrepresented voices and for trustees who can challenge their preconceived notions. The concept of ‘fit’ in trustee recruitment can lead to the exclusion of people from different backgrounds. As Arvinda explained, the fact that a candidate is not like the existing trustees on the board is exactly why their perspectives are valuable.

Not being like you is my strength. That is what helps me help you to see the world differently.

Roger shared some practical tips for recruiting outside of those who ‘fit’. Boards shouldn’t simply use their personal networks or advertise only passively. Instead, trustees should proactively advertise, use staff contacts and the networks of service users to actively reach out to new groups of potential trustees. Trustees should think about what they are going to say in their advert—state that you are particularly interested in hearing from people from diverse backgrounds and make the advert intelligible to people who may not understand what trusteeship entails.

Just advertising and waiting can’t unpick years of people being told ‘boardrooms are not places for people like you.’

Lastly, commit time to the process—be prepared to go for coffee with candidates and to explain what being a trustee is like. And the process continues once someone has been appointed. New trustees need to be supported to feel at home on the board. It is important to consider the location and the timings of board meetings.

Jo emphasised the importance of the role of the Chair in empowering new trustees, respecting their different knowledge and enabling them to speak up in a board meeting.

Developing a learning culture

A learning culture is key: no board will get this right first time, so it’s crucial to be prepared to learn from failings and adapt the process for successive rounds of recruitment. The challenge from all of our speakers was clear, the sector must do better at recruiting and retaining diverse trustee boards. This isn’t easy. But unless we redouble our efforts, we will fall even further behind other sectors—ultimately to the detriment of the people charities support.


How do you recruit and support a diverse mix of trustees? Read about the experiences of four charity leaders Click To Tweet