Creating a strong & inclusive board

How can we make our board more representative of our community? 

It's an important question and one which we've been looking at with several clients over the last few months.

In each of those cases, the current trustees are passionate about delivering positive change in their communities. At the same time, they’ve recognised that their boards don’t necessarily reflect the makeup of the diverse communities they serve. 

These aren’t isolated examples - research by the Charity Commission found that in England & Wales

trustees do not reflect the communities that charities serve. They are disproportionately older, highly educated and white; men outnumber women by two to one and three-quarters earn above the national median household income”.

There are clear benefits to a board which is diverse and representative– such as helping to support decision making which is informed and relevant to its community; and bringing a wider range of perspectives and skills. Our frequent experience is that while trustees want to make this happen, it can be hard to know what steps to take. At the same time, research from Reach Volunteering suggests that the issue is not of a lack of interest in trusteeship from under-represented groups. 

So what steps can be taken? 

We’ve been exploring how advisory groups and ‘shadow’ boards can be used to help bring more representative and diverse voices to the table; and support progression to a position on the board. These structures can be valuable in engaging people who might initially think that being a trustee is not for them; and in providing some exposure to trusteeship without taking on the legal responsibilities that this involves. 

For example, many of our clients want to ensure that young people in their communities are represented. We’ve seen examples of youth boards – where youth board members are supported to give guidance to the trustees; develop their own projects; and gain the skills and confidence to progress to the main board. 

Organisations working over wider geographic areas could consider setting up advisory groups for the specific communities within those regions, to provide a more authentic local connection and to feed back local priorities to the main board. Advisory groups can also help to ensure the perspective of people with relevant lived experience is communicated to the board. 

While these structures can be helpful, there are some pitfalls. Ultimately, the goal is for the main board itself to be representative, so it’s important that these structures aren’t a ‘dead end’ and there is support and opportunity for participants to progress to the full board. Trustees also need to think carefully about whether these structures are really necessary, or instead, whether there needs to be improved support for potential trustees to sit directly on the board itself.

  • More general steps that trustees can take to ensure their boards are more diverse, representative and responsive to their communities are: Running an open recruitment process for trustees, which engages inclusively with more diverse networks and sources of trustees. Research from Getting on Board found that 90% of trustees are recruited by word of mouth and existing networks (which leads to recruitment of people who look, sound and think like the existing board). 
  • Ensuring that the board is an inclusive and welcoming environment. This includes practical arrangements (for example – meetings times and a positive culture around out of pocket expenses); but more generally, creating a culture where all trustees are supported and feel able to contribute fully. 

At Community Enterprise we’re passionate about good governance and helping trustee boards to operate as effectively as possible. 

Please get in touch if you’d like to discuss how we could work with your board.