seagulls excluding one bird

Stop quoting Latin in your board meetings

18 October 2017

At NPC’s annual conference, NPC Ignites, the conversation around governance focused mostly on board diversity. Whilst it was clear there is a growing consensus that board diversity is ‘A Good Thing’, it was equally clear that we still have a long way to go.

I became a trustee earlier this month (for the first time) for a wonderful charity called Safe Ground and I haven’t been this excited about something for a long time.

When I told a friend, their response was: ‘It’s cool to see charities diversify.’

Wait, what? Sure, at 23 I am below the average age of a trustee—and I am slightly terrified by the task at hand because of it. But ultimately I have had exposure to the type of environment you would expect of a traditional board meeting. I’m therefore prepared for the experience. Surely the bar is way too low if I’m seen as diversity.

Well the bar is pretty low.

Just two years ago, 100% of Chairs responding to the ACEVO Pay Survey were white. 64% of them were male, 39% aged 65–74, and 47% of them said they were involved in more than one third sector organisation. 97% of all trustees in 2016 were white. (Source, Green Park, Thinking differently about difference; the value of diversity in the social sector.)

So what can boards do to be more representative? There is a lot to say on this topic. But here are some of the things I took away from the speakers at the NPC Ignites session:

Be clear on what you mean by diversity.

We desperately need more people of colour, women, young people, service users, those from a broader range of socio-economic backgrounds, disabled and neuroatypical people on boards of UK charities.

Why? Because boards should be more representative of the communities they serve. Trustees make critical decisions about charities that affect the lives of a whole range of people. And those decision-makers should themselves have a broad range of life experiences.

Value diversity. It’s not about ticking boxes.

Some of the findings from our State of the Sector research earlier this year, Charities taking charge, found that just 7% of charity leaders said they thought that diversity at board level was ‘not particularly important’.

And yet it was hard to pin down exactly why charities think it is important. Beyond the moral imperative, there is a business case for more diverse boards. Yet only a quarter of charities we asked agreed that diversity brings better decision-making. It also became apparent during the qualitative interviews that having more diversity at board level was something that slips down charities’ list of priorities.

As Polly Neate said in her keynote speech at NPC Ignites, ‘our values are not something we keep in a box to look at, they are lived.’ Diversity isn’t like a restaurant rating you can stick up in the window. It’s about organisational culture change. So if we truly value diversity we must live it. And that will take work.

Attracting diverse trustees is less than half the battle. You need to keep them.

An open application process that has real effort put into reaching a broad range of applicants may work. But it’s useless if those people then leave after 6 months because it hasn’t done anything for them, or worse, it has alienated them from the sector entirely.

If diversity is about organisational culture change, your day to day practices will inevitably need to change too. This means asking: Are our trustees supported and given personal development opportunities so that they stay? Is the way we conduct board meetings accessible for everyone? Diversity and inclusion go hand in hand. Top tip: stop quoting Latin in board meetings.

Set yourself a clear goal.

If you really want culture change in your organisation and on your board, mandate yourselves to be more diverse in a year’s time. Make it an explicit aim and work hard at it—because it is hard work, and it should be.

Keep reading about diversity, and listen to people who know more about it than you. I have a lot more to learn, and I’m more aware of this fact now that I sit on a board of trustees.

We can all do better, but some charities are doing better than others. If you know a board going good work in this area, why not nominate them for a Charity Governance Award? One of the seven categories this year is diversity and inclusivity, alongside topics such as impact, managing turnaround and embracing digital.

Read more about our State of the Sector research findings on diversity in Charities taking charge, page 15–21.