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Practical ways to build board diversity

Originally published: March 2018

“Trustees do not reflect the communities charities serve.” This was the unambiguous response of the Charity Commission to a 2017 report, Taken on Trust, that surveyed a sample of over 19,000 trustees in England and Wales.

Commissioned by the Office for Civil Society and the Charity Commission, the research found that:

  • Two thirds of trustees are male
  • 92 percent are white
  • Over half are retired and the average age is 60-62
  • Three quarters earn above the national median income
  • 60 percent have a professional qualification

“Diverse decision making is always better decision making,” says Leon Ward, deputy chair of Brook, the young person’s sexual health and wellbeing charity. “It may not be easy or straightforward but it will always be richer.” The more diverse a board is, the more chance it will have to offer different perspectives, to avoid the groupthink that can occur when trustees share very similar backgrounds and to better reflect on the needs of a charity’s beneficiaries.

As John Williams, vice chair at the Association of Chairs, which aims to promote peer support between chairs, also points out, it’s not only backgrounds and lived experiences that need to be taken into account. “There are two types of diversity: there’s the profile diversity (gender, race and so on) and also a diversity of skills,” he says. The report suggests the latter needs some work, too, as trustees said they lacked relevant legal, digital, fundraising, marketing and campaigning skills.

“It’s a challenge to get a better balance,” says Williams. “I think some boards have put [diversity] into the ‘too difficult’ box, because they’ve just been pleased to recruit who they can.”

So what can charities do to improve the situation?

Promote the benefits of being a trustee

One of the greatest barriers to getting a range of voices on boards is the relative invisibility of the role of the trustee. In a 2017 survey by consultancy Cause4, polling 1,000 people across the UK on trusteeship, almost a third of respondents were unfamiliar with what a charity trustee does. The Taken on Trust authors therefore recommend a national campaign to promote the value that trusteeship delivers to charities and their beneficiaries, to society at large and to the trustees themselves.

Individual charities have a role to play in promoting the benefits of trusteeship. Dan Francis, senior governance consultant at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), says organisations should think about how they are “selling” the opportunity when recruiting: “Why would someone want to take on these responsibilities? Talk about your cause, the impact that someone can have, about why it's different from a regular volunteer opportunity.”

Charities may be asking someone to give up their time, but don’t understate the benefits to the individual. 90 per cent of trustees polled in the Taken on Trust report said they find their role rewarding; nonprofits can attract good candidates by highlighting all the personal and professional benefits of serving on a board.

Update the way you recruit to your board

Outdated recruitment practices persist: the research found that nearly three quarters of trustees are recruited through informal networks and only five percent are recruited through an open application process. When members of a board are already drawn from a narrow background, there’s an obvious risk that this approach will compound the problem, with — as the report's authors explain — “self-replication in [board] membership and... an inward, perhaps even myopic, approach to their role.”

The simple way to change that is to make recruitment processes more transparent and structured. “It's important to think about what you want,” says Williams. “Do a skills audit, work out what you might be looking for that you haven't got, write a role description.” Francis agrees: “One thing I say to people thinking about becoming a trustee is to look at the charity’s recruitment process. You’d be unlikely to take a job unless you were confident they had the right systems and processes in place.”

It’s also about getting the word out as widely as possible. As well as posting the vacancy on your own organisation’s website and social media, spread the word among your wider networks, advises Williams: contact current and former volunteers, beneficiaries and corporate partners, whose younger staff might want an opportunity to be a trustee for the first time.

Ideally, you’ll also advertise externally — and that doesn’t have to cost a bomb. Getting On Board, for instance, offers a free recruitment service for charities; Step On Board trains trustees and then matches them to a suitable charity (and is free to NCVO members with an annual turnover of less than £1 million); and Reach Volunteering and Trustees Unlimited perform a similar function.

Support your trustees

Diversity means involving people who may not fit the typical profile. So how can boards create an inclusive environment where trustees — whatever their situation or experience — feel supported and able to fully contribute?

“Boards need to think about the language they use, where they physically hold the meetings and at what times,” says Francis. “If you've never sat on a board before and suddenly you've got a three-inch pile of papers to go through and you don't know what management accounts are, it's going to be alien to you and you’re not going to enjoy the opportunity.” Expenses — for childcare, or travel, say — are another consideration, along with the possible need for a translator or sign language interpreter, or for documents available in large print, audio or Braille.

Continue to monitor and review

So you’ve got a diverse board in place, with support for trustees where it’s needed. The job’s not quite done, though.

“Diversity isn't a tick-box exercise and so can't be 'in place'", says Ward. “It should be part of a living and breathing board — one that reflects, self-challenges and evaluates to ensure it’s always fit for purpose.”

“It's important to regularly review diversity on your board,” says Kate Ferguson, chair of The Advocacy Project, a charity that empowers marginalised communities. “Two thirds of our board members have financial, legal, business development, medical and other backgrounds. The remaining third have experience of mental health conditions, learning disabilities or dementia. As well as skills and experience, we also review age, gender and ethnicity.”

An effective chair is key

Don’t underestimate the role of your chair. “Chairs do have the ultimate responsibility for the composition and effectiveness of their board,” says Williams. “Diversity is perceived to be a challenge and as a result, people tend to hang onto their trustees." The new Charity Governance Code recommends that in normal circumstances trustees shouldn't be on the board for more than nine years, Williams adds, but this isn't always practical: "There is tension between best practice and reality. But I think what chairs need to do is face up to those challenges and see if there are ways around it.”

And when it comes to hearing a mix of voices, it’s the chair who takes the lead: "The chair makes sure everyone has the time and space in meetings to raise their views," says Ferguson. “Our Chair at The Advocacy Project has one-to-one discussions with trustees in between formal meetings, to ensure everyone feels able to make a full contribution and that their skills and experiences are being used effectively.”

Useful resources

For further guidance, see:



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



Janet Thorne: Who governs our charities? (2017)

Charity Financials: Why charities must do more to promote trustee diversity (2017)

Cass Business School: Trustee Awareness Research 2017 (2017)



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