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We speak to the joint founder and managing director of Women on Boards UK, Fiona Hathorn, about how the organisation is breaking down the barriers to the charity boardroom and preparing women to become trustees.

What are some of the biggest challenges preventing women from becoming charity trustees?

One of the biggest challenges for women considering applying for trustee roles is that most board positions are not publicly advertised. Aside from government organisations and/or publicly funded organisations, such as the Environment Agency, HMRC, the Big Lottery Fund and UK Sport, most board positions are never advertised. Instead, trustee roles are recruited through word of mouth: friends, family and contacts in the sector. Who does the CEO know? Who do the trustees know? Organisations such as the NHS may use a head hunter or advertise roles in the papers, but most promote the positions through people they know.

The other difficulty for people, not just women, is selling themselves onto trustee boards. We all know how to sell our company’s products and services, but selling yourself is tricky. It’s all about transferrable board skills. What is your board value add, specifically in relation to conformance (governance) and performance (strategy)? If you’re an accountant for example, you’re not going to be doing the accounts – instead, you’ll be overseeing the executives in the accounts team. Being a trustee is very different to being a staff member. Also, if the board already has an accountant, you need to think about what else you can offer, as there are only so many seats around the board table and you need to add something different.

Confidence in yourself is key when you join a board because being a trustee is a serious job. Everyone on the board has equal responsibility for decision making and accountability, so they need to feel comfortable with the knowledge they have and the rest of the trustees sitting with them. Research shows that women in general, need to feel competent before they are confident taking ‘stretch roles’. 

Without prior board experience and connections, it is thus entirely natural to feel nervous. That’s why we set up Women on Boards (WOB) to support women to take on trustee roles, governor positions, board positions or committee roles across all industries, including the charity sector. Our aim is to provide information about the role of the board and pre-interview connections to give people the inside track when applying for a role.

Tell us about WOB’s work.

We offer a vacancy area on our website advertising board positions across the UK. It’s free to advertise roles on the website and there are usually around 200 roles on there at any one time. Since we’ve launched, we’ve advertised 17, 000 board positions across all sectors. We have a vacancy search team of three which read all the national newspapers and browse websites and LinkedIn where there are board roles advertised. They then put all the positions on our website for people to look at.  Our members and connections also post roles on the site. To access the vacancies, you need to become a subscribed member of WOB.

We also have a resource centre — accessed for free on our website — with tips and advice for getting board ready and applying to become a trustee. This includes free, one-to-one help with writing a CV: we’ll help people to identify their board value add and make sure it stands out — it needs to jump off the page. Once someone gets an interview for a trustee role, we’ll either put them in touch with another member who can support them or a contact in our network. Women in particular have lack of access to contacts and networks, so this type of support can be invaluable. Today, around 80 percent of the board positions, across multiple sectors, are held by men. Research shows that it is human nature to promote and support people in our own image. As a consequence, women, unless they ask for support, will not get access to the networks and the information they need to join boards. The male domination of sport also plays a part as information about board roles is often shared by men in social settings, when women are not around.

We run a monthly workshop in London called Getting Started, Realising Your Board Career. During this workshop we offer advice on how to effectively sell yourself onto a board. This workshop is also run in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Manchester. In addition, we also run a Directors at a Distance webinar for those that cannot make our workshops, alongside a series of Success Story webinars and podcasts where our members share their board journeys to encourage and support women to believe they can join boards too.

What does the landscape look like for charity boards? What is the percentage of women on boards of trustees?

The charity sector is a bit better than other sectors, with around 30-50 percent of boards made up female trustees, on average. Of course, there are some charities with fewer women on their boards. As a comparison, the boards of listed companies (FTSE All Share) have below 20 percent women on average. Today, the top 100 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange, those with the highest market capitalisation, have boards made up of around 30 percent women. The government has worked hard over the last five years to micro manage these boards to get that up from 12 percent in 2012. But what’s most important for any board though is diversity of thought and how the board ensures it avoids ‘group think’. That’s where good governance comes in to play, and it only happens when diverse, fresh views and perspectives are heard around the table. Trustees having a maximum set term they can stay on a board and the board carrying out a regular skills audit to identify the skills they may be missing, are now considered by all regulators to be essential good governance and best practice.

Why should women consider becoming trustees?

Aside from being involved in your community and it being a rewarding experience, being on a board can enhance your career path. You’re at the top of an organisation, floating above HR and investment decisions, and looking at profit and loss accounts alongside balance sheets. You’re also differentiating who you are as an individual – it can set you apart from others. For those reasons, I think it’s really valuable to sit on a board.

Our job at WOB is to inspire people to take on trustee roles. When we go into most companies, no matter how senior the people we speak to are, their mouths drop open and they say: “I hadn’t thought of that, it seems so obvious.” It’s like planting seeds. I don’t know when those seeds will germinate: even if someone is too busy for the board right now, it might be something they consider in the future. Board positions don’t have to be time consuming or conflict with your exec role.

Of course, being on a board is not for everyone. But, we think it’s important for everyone to know what goes on in the board room of the organisation they work for as it’s where the tone of an organisation is set: the culture, strategy and the direction. You should know who is on the board, who reports into the board, how many committees report into the board and what they do. It gives you an understanding of the organisation you work for.

What are your views on having quotas and targets for charity boards?

The Charity Commission offers best practice advice on board diversity and skills audits, but it hasn’t set quotas or targets. In other words, they are not going to remove an organisation’s charitable status if they don’t have a diverse board. But increasingly funders are looking to give money to organisations that have diverse boards. I think targets shine a light on this issue and widen the net for women to apply for trustee roles. That’s a good thing. All businesses have targets: sales, costs, revenue and, even paperclip consumption, so why shouldn’t we have targets on making sure we have an effective board. What gets measured gets managed, and what gets managed gets done. It’s good management.

You’ve been a trustee of Fight for Sight. Tell us how you got the role and why you wanted to become a trustee.

Sight loss is really important to me: my great aunt was blind and my father, who is now in his 80s, has a genetic eye condition called glaucoma which means I am now tested on a regular basis. Very little research is carried out into the reasons people go blind so the work Fight for Sight does is very important. I was really keen to get involved with the charity for these reasons.

I called the CEO of Fight for Sight and said: “I absolutely love what you do, sight loss is really important to me.” I then explained that I had investment experience (my background is in investment management) and asked if they needed another trustee with investment experience on their board to help them oversee risk and benchmark setting for the charity’s asset and grant giving cash pots. I was then having coffee with the CEO a week later. A month later I met with the chair and some of the trustees and I was appointed onto the board about three months later.

I was proactive and that’s what we recommend to all women who want to join boards. Interestingly, most charities have an available board seat but don’t have time to advertise. In fact about 30 percent of WOB’s 1,500-plus success stories (OnBoard) are from people who have been proactive.  

Fiona is the founder and managing director of Women on Boards (WOB) in the UK, Peel Hunt advisor and a patron of the medical research charity Fight for Sight. She is a passionate angel investor and helped to found one of the first female angel investment clubs. Fiona is one of the judges for The Sunday Times annual NED Awards which takes places at Claridges every year. Formerly Fiona was a director of Old Mutual Asset Management and Hill Samuel Asset Management, running the global equities and emerging ­­markets desks respectively. In 2012 Fiona decided to launch WOB UK to encourage and support women applying for board roles across the public, private and not for profit sectors.

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