Board diversity: The candidates are there, the problem is how charities recruit

A diverse board
Janet Thorne
Chief Executive at Reach Volunteering

Open recruitment is closing the gap on board diversity but there is a disparity in outcomes for candidates. Janet analyses the findings from Reach's new report. 

Board diversity has been a hot topic for several years but it often feels like little progress has been made. Analysis of our data at Reach shows that there are grounds for optimism: there is a diverse pool of candidates and open recruitment is closing the gap. However, there is also a disparity in outcomes for candidates relating to  age and ethnicity, showing that there is important work to do. 

Reach Volunteering provides a free (to charities with a turnover of under £1m) trustee recruitment service, based on a supported self-service model. We have analysed the age, gender and ethnicity of applicants and appointees from 2017 through to 2020. It is a large data sample: 8,725 people making 15,398 applications, resulting in 3,169 trustee appointments. 

Open recruitment really does increase diversity

The Charity Commission's report in 2017 (Taken on Trust) revealed that 92% of trustees are white, two thirds are male and the average age is between 55 - 64. Since that time, it often feels like little progress has been made. 

The good news is that diversity of appointees through Reach’s service is much better than those in the Charity Commission report, across all three characteristics. The gender balance for appointments almost achieved parity in 2020. The numbers of young people being appointed is also positive: 19% of appointees were under 35, against 1% (Charity Commission data). The proportion of appointees who do not identify as white in our data is 16%,much higher than the Charity Commission figures (8%), and similar to the population of England and Wales. 

This shows that open recruitment (at least, open recruitment through Reach’s service) really does improve board diversity across these protected characteristics. Given that over 70% of charities recruit using informal methods, real gains could be made in trustee diversity if all boards started to recruit openly. The pool of candidates is really diverse (more diverse than the appointees, for age and ethnicity - an issue I come to below). This is excellent news: there really is an appetite amongst under-represented groups to become trustees.

Disparities in outcomes

But there is a large disparity in outcomes for different groups. This suggests that even those boards which do recruit openly, do not always recruit fairly. Although relatively high numbers of young people and people of colour were appointed as trustees through Reach’s service, the number of people from these groups who applied for trustee roles was even higher. For this reason we analysed ‘success’ rates - the chances of applicants being appointed. 

Younger people are less likely to be appointed. The 55 - 64 age group are 80% more likely to be appointed than the 18 - 34 age group. There are a number of reasons why this might be. Charities come to Reach specifically to recruit people with skills so they may be looking for candidates with more experience. Less seasoned candidates may be unaware of how to make a good application for a trustee position, and thus perform less well. Nonetheless, it does seem a shame that a higher proportion of young trustees are being rejected at a time when few boards have intergenerational diversity. 


There are no plausible excuses for the disparity in outcomes between different ethnicities: White applicants are almost twice as likely to be appointed as Black and Asian applicants. There is a big difference in experience between different ethnicities. For example, people who identify as Black Caribbean are, on average, the second most likely group to be appointed, and people who identify as Asian Chinese are much more likely to be appointed than Asian Pakistani. White British applicants are significantly more likely to be appointed than people from all other groups and almost three times more likely than applicants who identify as Asian Pakistani. This stark figure echoes labour market research such as a study which found that applicants named Mohammed were three times less likely to gain a job interview than someone named Adam. 

Our data does not reveal at which point in the process this disparity occurs: it could be at shortlisting or interview, or both. It could be that candidates withdraw, discouraged by a process which does not feel inclusive. The causes could unconscious bias, structural discrimination or overt racism. However, the end result is the same: candidates' chances of being appointed are, in part, determined by their ethnicity. This needs to be addressed. 

Change is possible

It is clear that some boards have a long way to go, to develop inclusive recruitment practices. It can be hard, and slow, to change board practices and culture. It may involve challenging established and often comfortable patterns of behaviour, amongst a group who have all chosen to be there on a voluntary basis. And boards have many other pressing concerns to consider. But we have to do this work, with urgency. Unless our boards are led by people who are representative of the people they serve, they lack legitimacy and are poorly placed to make decisions about their charities’ future. When one group dominates, other voices are squeezed out, and important perspectives and insights are lost. Conversely, there is so much to gain from diversifying your board. Those who have done so successfully, who have created a culture which genuinely includes a rich mix of trustees with a range of lived, learned and practice expertise, are passionate about the benefits: richer and more stimulating board discussions, more rounded decisions and greater alignment with their charity’s purpose and values. I appreciate that it does take resolve to get going, to reflect honestly on why your board might lack diversity, and what you need to change. Luckily there is plenty of help to do this. 

Reach’s service (completely free to charities under £1m turnover) can connect boards to a diverse pool of candidates. Young Trustees Movement also advertises trustee vacancies for free. 

There is plenty of good quality and accessible support to help boards recruit inclusively:  

  • The Trustee Recruitment Cycle is an end-to-end guide by Reach Volunteering, produced in collaboration with Getting on Board, Association of Chairs and Small Charities Coalition. It provides guidance, tools and inspiration for boards to develop inclusive practices at every stage of the trustee recruitment process, from considering the full range of skills, experience and characteristics their board could benefit from, to running an inclusive process at each stage.
  • Action for Trustee Racial Diversity has just released a specialist guide on on recruiting and supporting Black and Asian trustees.
  • Young Trustees Movement, Social Practice ENT and Getting on Board all provide free / low cost, high quality training, resources and support to help diversify your board. 

What next? 

Reach will continue to develop the Trustee Recruitment Cycle, to encourage more boards to recruit inclusively. This includes extending the content with more links, tools and case studies, and getting the cycle in front of more boards. If  you’d like to collaborate with us on any of that, please get in touch. 

We’ll keep iterating our service to attract a wider range of applicants, and explore ways to nudge inclusive practices. We’re also on our own ED&I journey,  and next month we will be sharing an update on the work we've done so far and our future plans. We’ll also keep collaborating with the many, brilliant organisations and individuals working to make governance more equitable.

Read our report 'Trustee Diversity: Who is applying and who is being appointed?'.

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