board room table

So how diverse is your charity’s board?

By Julia Oliver 9 December 2016

It often surprises me that, despite the fact that we are many years down the line of an equalities and diversity agenda, people can still have very different takes on what diversity means and what it can achieve.

What difference can board diversity make?

I recently attended an NPC roundtable on how greater diversity of trustees on boards of trustees could increase charities’ impact. It was hosted as part of NPC’s State of the Sector research which we at Odgers are proudly supporting. In interviews with sector leaders NPC has conducted as part of this research, it was found that some still think that ‘diversity is less of an issue than increased expectations of quality governance coming out of a changing environment of public trust’.

I found this view baffling and a little depressing—as if diversity around the board table has no relevance to good governance! I know from my work at Odgers that it is precisely a diverse board that can help make better decisions and improve the quality of governance—this in turn increases public trust.

Yet it was also clear from the discussions that there has been little work done to actually demonstrate the impact of a diverse board on a charity’s effectiveness. At the roundtable, we all agreed that diversity is a ‘good thing’. But ultimately, the private sector is further ahead than the third sector at establishing what a difference board diversity can actually make to organisations.

Perhaps that’s because not enough charities have tried it to know. Perhaps it’s because it’s tough to quantify. But given how compelling the case for diversity is in the private sector—and given that the voluntary sector is supposed to champion fairness, equality and social inclusion—charities certainly need to step up: to gain different perspectives that will push their work forward, and to better represent the public whose good they exist to promote.

How can trustees boost diversity on their boards?

A common defence against not having a diverse board is to say ‘well, it’s difficult enough to find good trustees anyway’. In my professional field as a search consultant, I know there is certainly not a lack of great people who are happy to be trustees and to contribute for free. But you do need to invest in the search for them, and proactively look for talent, rather than expect people to come to you. Do people know about being a trustee and how to be one? This isn’t golf club membership. You can be much more inclusive and creative about how you can bring in the variety of voices you need.

And if you have already got a diverse board, it is not enough to pat ourselves on the back and say ‘we have done diversity’. You need to know what it means to your ability to deliver for beneficiaries—if you are delivering for young people, where is your input from young people to the board? If you work with people with disabilities, is anyone with a disability present and able to contribute at trustee meetings?

There is a wide range of things that every organisation can absolutely do today to increase their ability to attract and retain a diverse board membership.

Ensure a clear term of office so there is a built-in refresh. If you find good people, recruit double. Build in clear on-boarding and induction to ensure that less experienced candidates join seamlessly. Acknowledge that people who think differently to those around the table are not always the easiest to manage but that the benefits outweigh not having them.

Thinking innovatively around the use of technology and whether the time-honoured tradition of having people physically around a board table needs to be reimagined. This is not least because this rather formal and authoritarian, paper based method may be quite off putting for people not in the ‘usual’ crowd.

The world is changing and the sector must keep up. That means getting past doing the same old same old with the usual suspects.

Find out more about NPC’s State of the Sector programme.

NPC recently published Above and beyond in trusteeship: What good governance looks like, which explores how boards can do more for their charities. It touches on issues of board make up and diversity.