Eastside Primetimers contributed this article Quilter Cheviot’s Annual Review for Charities to showcase good practice in recruiting diverse trustees.
The past two years have highlighted the importance of sound governance in charities.
In conversations with charity managers early on in the Covid-19 pandemic, it became apparent how variable board engagement and capability had been. Some Trustees proved resourceful, drawing on their talents to revisit financial projections or providing critical support to chief executives. But in other organisations, board members were found to be unresponsive, under skilled or risk-averse at a time of crisis.
At the same time, the sector had been grappling with a long-overdue focus on diversity in top teams. Only 36% of Trustees are women and just 8% are people of colour, while the average age is over 60. This problem is also closely linked to the one of board capability. Inclusion is about more than box-checking or public relations. It enables creative solutions and internal challenges that come with diversity of thought, and it can bring the lived experience not-for-profits need if they are to be truly oriented around the people and causes they exist for.
So how do charities find the right mix of Trustees, and enable them to have an impact?
Plan properly, look widely
Charities can start by gaining internal clarity on what they need. Talk to the whole team, the frontline, beneficiaries too. Then they must draw up an engaging and inclusive recruitment pack which brings out the essence of the organisation, what the role involves and the benefits of taking on a Trustee role. It is also important to look far and wide to find a good fit for the organisation. More so than recruitment for paid roles, which is increasingly difficult in the current candidate driven market, finding great Trustees can be challenging and places the burden on the organisation with the gap to show why people should choose them.
To achieve that well-diversified board, organisations must run a well-considered recruitment process and key to that is to ensure there are no unnecessary barriers for applicants – demanding previous Trustee experience, for example.
Eastside Primetimers uses the BeApplied Job Description Analysis Tool to promote inclusivity and anonymised applications to try to reduce bias. Candidates are also asked if there’s anything different that could be done to accommodate particular needs. It may be hard to cover every base, but organisations can show that they are open to doing so.
Second, look beyond just the standard jobs boards and networks to advertise and search for candidates. If you do what you have always done, the result will be the same. Perhaps look at specialist groups formed for black lawyers and women in accountancy, for example (depending on the role requirements), and even Facebook can be a stomping ground for many great people who don’t take to LinkedIn.
Third, when it comes to shortlisting and final selection, hold on to the key competencies you set out initially. Go by that along with their interest in the organisation’s work, rather than the length of their experience.
Induction, training and creating the right culture
It is vital, however, that this work doesn’t stop once a Trustee is onboard. Good charities create opportunities for Trustees to familiarise themselves with the operational side of their new organisation. They must also be prepared to provide learning financial literacy remains a skill that every Trustee needs. For example, the service user representative or the young, new digital Trustee you’ve sought out might never have needed to read a balance sheet. To get the best of all worlds, charities should arrange training for new Trustees.
Organisations can also lock-in the gains from the rise of remote working. Virtual meetings have lowered barriers to attendance and can change the power dynamics that occur around a physical table. Some board members feel they have been able to be more engaged than ever before. And in particular, virtual strategies can make Trusteeships more accessible to those with disabilities or caring obligations, or who live far away from head offices.
Chief executives, Chairs and existing members must also create an open and inclusive culture. Past Charity Commission research suggests that at any given time, more than a third of all charities have at least one board vacancy. But being the lone addition to an established board can be difficult, particularly if you are from an underrepresented group. Some of the best opportunities for fundamental change come when multiple Trustees join at once, but it won’t always, and shouldn’t have to, be this way. One Trustee, onboarded well, must be able to make a real difference.
This can be as simple as encouraging people to ask questions. When I first became a Trustee, I found it difficult to ask what jargon terms meant, and I felt I was expected to know. This can be off-putting to beginner Trustees or those from different walks of life. We must make sure all voices around the board table are heard and respected. There are cases where new board members from ethnic minority backgrounds have left shortly after joining, concluding they couldn’t find a way to make a real contribution.
What can individual Trustees do?
A must for new Trustees is to learn about the charity they have joined. Secure early conversations with the Chair and chief executive, and ideally other stakeholders, to talk about expectations and fill in the blanks.
A step beyond that is to find out about charity sector issues, and the forces affecting the organisation in the wider operating environment. It helps to know which publications to follow, and to look at other organisations operating in a similar space – reading beyond the board papers will empower you to offer genuine challenge or fresh thinking. You can also call upon a wealth of governance resources from organisations like the NCVO, CFG and Getting On Board, to seek additional support and build peer networks with Trustees in other charities.
By doing all this, not-for-profit organisations can craft recruitment processes and foster cultures that will lead to greater board effectiveness and finally make diversity a reality. In turn, this will prepare charities for future governance challenges.