Tips on recruiting more diverse trustees

Sophie Livingstone is managing director of Trustees Unlimited. In 2016 she received the Mayor’s Fund for London Individual Award for ‘outstanding achievement and lasting impact in tackling the skills and employment agenda for young Londoners from disadvantaged backgrounds’. 

Last year, The Charity Commission’s ‘Taken on Trust’ report laid bare the lack of diversity on charity boards, highlighting that men outnumber women on boards by two to one and that more than 90% of trustees are white, older with above average income and education.

Another report from Inclusive Boards found that the boards of charities in England and Wales are less diverse than those of FTSE 100 companies. Just 6.6 per cent of the trustees of leading charities are from an ethnic minority background, compared to 8.2 per cent on FTSE 100 boards and two thirds of the UK’s 500 largest charities have all-white boards.

In fact, this was illustrated even more starkly last week by Thea Longley of BWB speaking at NCVO’s trustee conference, who revealed that 1 in 12 trustees are called David or John.

Time for change

Tackling this is a priority for Trustees Unlimited. Civil society is one of the UK’s proudest assets, but our charities’ governing bodies really need to reflect the communities they serve in order to be more relevant and connected. Our experience also suggests that a diverse board is more likely to engage in constructive challenge and make better decisions as a result. Its is no wonder that the Charity Governance Code prioritises diversity in all its forms.

However, this lack of diversity doesn’t reflect a lack of interest. Whenever we introduce Step on Board (our board level volunteering programme run in partnership with NCVO) people tell us they’ve always wanted to become a trustees but didn’t know how to go about it. This makes me wonder if charities are doing enough to promote their vacancies or engage new audiences through social media and other recruitment channels.

Historically, diversity also hasn’t been helped by a large amount of word of mouth recruitment which has led to trustees recruited in the likeness of existing board members.

How to diversify your board

To change the status quo, diversity must be on the boardroom agenda, with charities honestly assessing how they’re addressing diversity and what needs to change to attract more diverse trustees.

There are other things that can be done to improve diversity, which don’t have to cost the earth:

  • Hold board meetings at a convenient time for most trustees, for example, evening meetings might suit younger people. Don’t exclude potential candidates with restrictive timings.
  • Be upfront about the time commitments when talking to potential trustees. Include away days, committees, site visits and events and be clear about the minimum time needed to be a fully participating board member– this will ensure the trustees recruited will be committed and engaged.
  • First time trustees need support, so provide mentoring as part of the induction. As a new trustee, I was given a trustee buddy who showed me the ropes and guided me. It was invaluable, and two years on, I still turn to her for advice sometimes!
  • If new trustees come from are outside the charity sector, they will need some help making the transition. Programmes like Step on Board help people understand the charity landscape. It supports candidates at every step – whether that is helping to adapt their CV for trustee roles or ensuring they’re ‘board ready’ and can contribute from day one. If you are an NCVO member looking for trustees for your charity, then Step on Board may be able to help email: with a link to your vacancy.
  • Be open minded and have conversations with people who may lack experience but who have desirable skills. I recently read Geoff Mulgan from Nesta’s blog on the fourth Industrial Revolution and how Civil Society isn’t responding to the need for digital skills. Attracting digitally savvy, probably younger people onto boards needs to be a priority if charities are to respond to this at a strategic level.
  • For Board Chairs, reflect on your approach to leading meetings, how do you include and value everyone’s contributions, both in the Boardroom and outside it?

There is unfortunately still a long way to go to tackle trustee diversity, but initiatives like Trustees Week can help to attract applications from people from broader backgrounds who can strengthen our wonderful charity sector.


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