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Why do we need diversity?

By Tom Collinge 5 February 2018

Most charities believe boards should be diverse. But, according to our State of the Sector research, many are unsure what specific benefits diversity brings and how to achieve it.

At a recent NPC and Clothworkers’ Company seminar on the topic, we heard from three organisations with a positive story to tell on diversity. Here are the top three tips that we took away from the session.

Non-traditional expertise is still expertise

Leap Confronting Conflict has several board members who have graduated its programme, including Peter Olawaye, who sits as a trustee alongside his job at the EY Foundation. He spoke of how his past experiences going through the programme informed his decision-making and gave him a distinct perspective. For example, he brought his experience with the Grenfell Tower fire to the board:

A friend of mine tragically lost some of their family members in the fire and I was able to reflect on the response from the media, local government and the council, and the injustice that these people went through. It brought this issue a little closer to the board and reminded them that some of the victims were of similar profile to the people Leap works with on a day to day basis.

Peter also spoke of a fellow trustee Chantal Chang who, inspired by her own experience completing the programme, pulled the board up over the support they were providing for people who had graduated the programme.

CEO of Leap Tom Lawson said:

‘We’ve come to understand that lived experience is expertise. The contribution they [trustees who come through the programme] make are expertise just as the contributions from the lawyer and the accountant on our board are.’

Trustees with lived experience know when the mission needs to change

In the experience of Emma Coyler, Founder and Director of Body & Soul, having a diverse set of trustees helps shape and evolve organisational mission.

When it was first set up, Body & Soul was exclusively focused on supporting the needs of people living with, or affected by, HIV, and a third of the board had the condition. As part of a commitment to understanding their members, they asked ‘why’ their clients had HIV. For many, childhood adversity was the root cause. The charity moved to a broader mission of addressing the ‘life-threatening effects of childhood adversity’.

Emma explained that ‘changing the mission could have been a real challenge… Those trustees who were not directly affected by HIV were more attached to HIV [as a cause] than members on the board who were living with HIV themselves.’ Trustees with a lived experience of HIV gave the board confidence that the expansion in focus was reflective of the needs of members in Body & Soul. Her talk highlighted that when a charities context changes, having decision-makers with direct experience of the issues in question can lead to more informed choices about how to react.

Diversity is difference—it should be challenging

Why do we want diversity? Besides the moral case for greater inclusion, there’s the business case. For Kai Adams, partner at executive search firm Green Park, ‘the end goal is to take better decisions and therefore have better impact. To do that you have to bring in people with different perspective, different outlooks and different experiences.’

Promoting difference is the right course of action. But Kai cautioned that boards are often ill prepared to accept this challenge on the way to the rewards it brings. ‘If you are going to appoint people who are different from you, that’s not going to feel natural or comfortable. You’re going to have to work hard at it’.

Key take away? Getting a diverse board won’t be easy, and it won’t always feel ‘nice’ and ‘safe’. But this challenge can improve your board’s decisions and make you a better charity.

We’ll be writing up a longer briefing with insights from this event, and continuing the discussion about voluntary sector board diversity in the coming months—including with a roundtable discussion. Share your thoughts and keep up to date via Twitter @NPCthinks or get in touch

Find out more about our programme of events for the voluntary sector.