1. Lack of a good process
Many boards have an ill-defined recruitment process which limits the pool of candidates and the rigour of the selection process. Chairs often ‘inherit’ a process, and they – or fellow board members – are reluctant to try new approaches. If they try new methods unsuccessfully, they may write off those methods in the future.
“A previous chair had advertised in the local press [for new trustees], got three new trustees, but they had all left within a year. So that process didn’t work… So, there was reluctance because of that experience to openly advertise again.” Trustee
2. The particular challenges of recruiting trustees
Even boards with a formal process can find it difficult to attract and select trustees because they are often looking for a complex combination of qualities and skills in one person. For example, someone with marketing skills and with qualities to complement the team dynamic (for example, a details person to offset the ‘big vision’ people) and with specific characteristics (for example, young or from a BAME background).
“I lead on recruitment in my job and I am pretty good at it. But I am finding it very difficult [as a chair] because trustees work as a collective. The collective needs to be diverse, and I don't mean just in terms of ethnicity, but in all ways, so you haven't got group-think. It's so hard because it's like looking for a needle in a haystack.” Chair
Many boards are uncomfortable with turning down unsuitable but willing applicants because the role is voluntary and they feel uncomfortable about rejecting any offers of help. This, in turn, can make some boards cautious about promoting roles widely in case they have to let more people down. We found that boards which rely on informal channels find it most difficult to reject candidates.
3. Board dynamics and status quo
Often chairs of boards are nervous of recruiting new trustees in case they upset the existing dynamic. Some restrict recruitment to their own networks so that they get someone who will ‘fit in’. There is also concern that new trustees might challenge the status quo.
“The [new trustee] has held a very senior position. I don't doubt that that person will come with lots of opinions, but how is that going to be with our board? In part you want that diversity of views, but there is that fear of will that work, or will they be a handful?” Chair
This fear drives many boards’ reluctance to introducing term limits, especially if they think that current trustees are contributing well. All of this can maintain a narrow mix of views and skills on the board.
4. Not valuing difference
Most trustees said that diversity was important but cited obstacles to making it a reality. Trustees talked about extra effort and resource required to recruit beyond their networks. Some were unsure how best to surface different types of diversity, especially non-visible diversity. Many trustees believed that only a narrow range of people are interested in becoming a trustee.
“Why would we make any 22-year-old come and spend the afternoon doing what we have to spend the afternoon doing?! The perception is young people would probably run a mile at the traditional board meeting and I think there is some truth in that.” Vice chair