Reflect

Decide which skills and experience are the most important to lead your charity, and identify which of these are missing from your current board. Trustees work collectively, as a team, so the people who will add the most value to your board will be people who can bring new skills and different perspectives, rather than 'more of the same'.

Think about the diversity of your board - which voices and experiences are missing from your board discussions? Recruiting a diverse board does take extra thought but it will bring many benefits. Consider what might discourage people from joining your board. Deciding to recruit openly will get you off on the right footing.

There is real magic when you bring together lived experience and strategic trustees to help an organisation develop its strategy and how it governs.
Leap Confronting Conflict
Back to top

What makes a good board?

A good board keeps a charity on track and safeguards its future. It ensures that the charity, and its leaders, are accountable to the people it serves, its funders and other stakeholders. But a good board does much more than this. It debates important decisions robustly, drawing on many different perspectives, and always prioritises the interests of its beneficiaries. It celebrates the charity’s values and leads by example. 

A good board does not happen by accident – it takes a lot of effort to build. Thoughtful recruitment is a crucial part of this. A charity needs a board which has the right range of expertise and experience to make informed decisions about its services and operations, to address current objectives and strategic priorities.

Recruiting for the team

Trustees always work as a collective, so recruitment is about finding people who will add to the spread of skills and experience that the board already has. Recruiting for the team like this, is a key element of successful trustee recruitment.
 

The recipe for a good trustee board

The right combination of skills and experience will be different for each charity and will change over time, but the list below is a useful starting point.

  • The skills and experience to oversee current operations and future strategy – a skills audit can help identify gaps in your board.

  • A diverse range of different perspectives and life experience – a diversity audit can be revealing.  
  • People with first-hand experience of using your services or the issues you tackle – trustees with lived experience can enrich board discussions. 
  • Commitment to your charity’s purpose and values. 
  • The ability to challenge one another constructively, and to welcome new board members.
     

Charity insights on building good boards

Building a skills-based board

Girish Menon, former chief executive, ActionAid UK

ActionAid puts the rights of women and girls at the heart of what they do. They have three main areas of work: violence against women and girls, women’s economic empowerment, women’s and girls’ rights in humanitarian crises.

A board that is diverse in many ways

Ben Kernighan, chief executive at Leap Confronting Conflict

For us, we see a diverse board as being the board that will make the best decisions, and there's a number of different elements to our board’s diversity.  

  • Young people who have lived experience of the challenges that the young people who go through Leap programmes have experience of.  
  • Because some of the work that we do is in the criminal justice system and because a significant proportion of the young people that we work with are from black and minority and Asian communities, we are also keen to have diversity in terms of race as well. 
  • We also have diversity amongst the senior professional trustees – we deliberately have people who come from a combination of sectors, so we have charitable, public and private sector experience on the board. 
  • We've also worked hard to achieve a good gender mix on our board too. 

We see a real value in bringing together lived experience with high-level strategic trustees. There is magic when they come together to help an organisation develop its strategy and how it governs in the best interests of the young people that we are here for.
 

Leap is a national youth charity that provides conflict management programmes and support to young people and the professionals working with them

A different type of board for 'startups' and established charities

Rita Chadha, CEO at the Small Charities Coalition

The Small Charities Coalition provides small charities with information, advice and support to help them deliver what they want and to help make sure their voices are heard.

Tension on a board can be a good thing

Ben Kernighan, chief executive at Leap Confronting Conflict

There are tensions between trustees on our board. But they’re not specifically between our young trustees and our experienced professional trustees. 

As a conflict management organisation, fundamental to our beliefs is that conflict isn't necessarily bad.  Indeed, it is necessary. And great leadership involves recognising that conflict is inevitable and that it can be used as a positive force for good because you want a board in which people will freely express different views and do that in a way which is respectful and where people value those different contributions. 

I've been on a number of boards, and the best boards I've been on have been the ones where people have different  perspectives. And the least stimulating, and least productive boards have been the ones where there has been less diversity – and I use that word in the very broadest sense. 

I think diversity is really important in terms of protected characteristics. And it's really important in terms of diversity of ways of thinking. Diversity of ways of thinking will often be informed by the life and work experiences different people have.
 

Leap is a national youth charity that provides conflict management programmes and support to young people and the professionals working with them

Back to top

Why board diversity is important 

Good boards have a rich mix of trustees with different perspectives, drawn from their different professional expertise, life experiences, and cognitive approaches. Building a team which includes this mix of difference is not always easy, but it is worth it. Board equality, diversity and inclusion is one of the key principles of good governance, in the Charity Governance Code

Diverse boards make better decisions

Diverse teams have been shown to make better decisions. They are more fact focused, they analyse information better and they are more likely to innovate. Read about the case for more diverse boards and their positive impact in this NHS England workforce guide.

Be true to your charity’s purpose and values

If your charity has a social purpose, and if it values inclusivity, it is essential that you reflect this at a leadership level. This is how you live your values and embed your purpose. Your board needs to reflect the makeup of your wider community, so that all people, including those from marginalised groups, can have confidence in your leadership.

 

 

We get to know the individual. Do they understand the issues, the social model of disability? Are they in tune with our key principles?
Disability Direct

Lived experience

It can be a powerful thing to have trustees with first-hand experience of the issues you address or the services you provide. They can enrich board discussions and play an important role in shaping strategy. You should recruit trustees with lived experience in the same way you would any trustee, but do not mistake them for token representatives of your service users. To avoid them feeling like they are, it helps to have two or three trustees with lived experience. 
 

Charity insights on diverse boards

Diverse boards ask better questions

Tom Lawson, CEO at Leap Confronting Conflict from 2010 – 2019 

The problem with the board when I arrived it was almost exclusively white and posh. With that kind of board, it was harder to ask the right questions or have the right debates. 

The moment we had a more diverse board – more women, more racially mixed and more young people – a bunch of unhelpful questions evaporated. Such as assumptions like all young people do is spend time on social media. And what replaced them was more thoughtful, open, effective questions that inspired better debate. Just having diversity transformed the nature of the debates, and we had much better questions and conversations.

Leap is a national youth charity that provides conflict management programmes and support to young people and the professionals working with them

A mix of perspectives that enrich and inform

Girish Menon, former chief executive, ActionAid UK

How does a mix of perspectives enrich the board?

ActionAid puts the rights of women and girls at the heart of what they do. They have three main areas of work: violence against women and girls, women’s economic empowerment, women’s and girls’ rights in humanitarian crises.

Helps us serve our service users better

James Watson-O’Neill, chief executive at Sign Health

On our board we have:

  • Six deaf trustees – there was only one when I started
  • A good gender balance
  • A good balance of sexual orientation
  • Good representation from different regions of the UK.

We really benefit from the different perspectives and points of view we get from our diverse board. The sheer range of backgrounds and experiences improves debate and helps with decision making. This is particularly relevant to us from a deaf perspective. We have:

  • Deaf sign language users
  • People who are deaf but don’t use sign language
  • People who have been born deaf
  • Deaf people born into hearing families
  • People who went to deaf schools
  • People who went to hearing schools

This broad representation of the deaf community is very important to us and is central to us serving the deaf community well. But we need to do much more to ensure that we have deaf people from Black, Asian or other minoritised backgrounds on our Board and that is where we are focusing with our next round of trustee recruitment.

Sign Health – the deaf health charity that works to improve deaf people’s health and well being.

Different perspectives lead to better strategy

Ben Kernighan, chief executive at Leap Confronting Conflict

I think the senior professional people on our board, who often spend their working days surrounded with people who are rather like them, find the experience of our diverse board one of the most interesting and stimulating things that they do in a working day. They get insights into the worlds of people who often have a different background, or are from a different generation. 

When our professional trustees share perspectives on strategy, others on the board with different perspectives make insightful comments, such as:

  • "Well, that's not going to work in practice"
  • "That might be what you think young people want. But actually, this is what I'm hearing in the community that I'm living in or from the people that I'm talking to, who went through the programme with me.”

By bringing these people with different perspectives together, you're really maximising your chances that you'll come up with the right strategy for an organisation.
 

Leap is a national youth charity that provides conflict management programmes and support to young people and the professionals working with them

Feminist principles in our governance

Patti Whaley, former chair of trustees, ActionAid UK

Because our strategy is about empowering women and girls this necessarily means challenging power structures and asking how power is used and how it can be shared with people who have been excluded from it in the past. So we wanted to ask how would this relate to our board, how would our board express feminist principles in our leadership and governance.

So we did things like we had a governance review where we looked at how we manage power on the board, how we share speaking space and make sure everyone is heard and we recruited two trustees under 25, brilliant young women, who have a added a great deal to our board.

You can hear more in Patti's video made for the Charity Governance Awards 2018.

ActionAid puts the rights of women and girls at the heart of what they do. They have three main areas of work: violence against women and girls, women’s economic empowerment, women’s and girls’ rights in humanitarian crises.

Back to top

How to make your board more diverse

Many boards would like to be more diverse but have found it difficult to get started. There is no one easy solution. Diversifying your board will likely mean making a number of changes. Don't worry about doing  it perfectly – boards often make mistakes along the way. If you do, learn from your mistakes and move on. 

There is one common attribute of boards who have successfully diversified: the chair and CEO are clear about why the diversity is important for their charity and they resolved to make it happen. This helpful blog from Pari Dhillon describes the steps to take to diversify your board in a meaningful way, that aligns with your charity's purpose.

Diversity audits

A diversity audit can help you understand how diverse your board is now and it helps you to spot the gaps in diversity that you want to fill. Diversity audits often reveal information you might miss otherwise because not all difference is visible, such as class, sexuality or invisible disability.

Removing barriers to new trustees

Take a fresh look at how you operate as a board and think about how this might deter potential trustees, especially if you want to attract people who are different to your existing board. If you think about these barriers before you start recruitment, and start making changes, or at least planning them, you will signal to prospective trustees that you are genuinely welcoming and inclusive. For example:

  • Do the location and timing of your meetings exclude people with disabilities, or those who cannot attend in office hours, or because of caring responsibilities?

  • Can you support trustees by finding accessible meeting rooms, by offering expenses, or video conferencing?

  • Can you improve the quality of your board papers? Write in succinct, plain English, make clear points, remove jargon and consider adding relevant graphs and imagery.

Charity insights on diversfying your board

Start with your charity’s purpose

Arvinda Gohil, chair of The Peel.

Boards often start with the goal of increasing diversity, but the place you need to start is with your charity’s purpose. Are we clear about our purpose? If we are, who are the people we need around this table to help us deliver that purpose? What different skills, perspectives and life experience do we need? 

The board I joined as chair wasn’t clear about its purpose. So we developed our strategy and our ambition – which is all about creating a connected Clerkenwell – and this gave us a clear sense of purpose and the opportunity to explore who is in the organisation, at every level, including the board. The board I inherited had only one other trustee with a local connection, and it was all white and mainly male.

By focusing on our purpose we were able to agree three criteria for all new trustees: people with a local connection, who got what we were trying to achieve and who could bring diverse aspects of the communities we work with. This made diversifying the board more compelling and gave it more momentum. Because you have to be tenacious if you want to succeed with this. The previous chair was resistant to the changes, but being clear about how these changes support our purpose, and the link between our purpose and equity, gets everyone on the same page. Even so, the chair and CEO have to keep pushing at it. It took us about a year to do it, and it was sometimes quite painful. But it is worth it in the end: what we have now is a richness of conversation which truly reflects what’s going on in the area we live in.

The Peel is a charity that has been making Clerkenwell a more connected community for over a hundred years.

Learn as you go

Tom Lawson, CEO at Leap Confronting Conflict from 2010 – 2019 

We specifically wanted to recruit young people with lived expertise of the issues our charity supports. We were daunted by lengthy guidelines for how to recruit for diversity. So we decided to go ahead and recruit the young trustees we wanted and then asked them how we could help them settle in and become effective board members.

We made lots of mistakes in the first few years and the young people let us know where we were going wrong. 

  • Initially, we planned to form a shadow board of young people but the young people asked where would the decisions be made and the answer was on the actual board. So we realised that we needed to have young people on our actual board. 
  • One or two young people on our board would feel tokenistic so we agreed that we needed to recruit three young people. 
  • We set up a ‘buddy system’ where a new trustee is paired up with a more experienced trustee and they read through the board papers ahead of board meetings together. 
  • We regularly ask our new trustees for feedback on how we can make our board papers more accessible, such as adding images and graphs, and avoiding jargon. 

Leap is a national youth charity that provides conflict management programmes and support to young people and the professionals working with them

Three steps to an ethnically diverse board

Robin Simpson, chief executive at Voluntary Arts
 

Our board is diverse in a number of ways but our success in recent years has been the ethnic diversity of our board, which has changed enormously. For a long time, we were concerned about the lack of ethnic diversity within our board and our staff without managing to do anything about it. There are three main steps that finally helped us leap over that hurdle, as follows.

  1. A new chair of the board

    Our new Chair insisted that we find a way to increase ethnic diversity on our board. He didn’t have all the answers for how we should do this but he had a real determination which pushed us to take action. 

  2. A BAME advisor
    We hired a black, asian and minority ethnic (BAME) advisor to help us, on a short freelance contract. They recommended we set up a BAME advisory panel that would last for one year.
  3. A 12 month BAME advisory panel 
    We recruited a panel of nine volunteers from different BAME communities across the UK, including the Pakistani community in Glasgow, the Caribbean community in Cardiff and the Indian community in Belfast. So the panel was diverse in terms of ethnicity and where they lived. 

    The members of the panel worked directly with some of our staff teams around the country, so they could better understand the work of our charity. And the panel met each other several times for dinner followed by meetings the next day where we discussed the issues faced by their artistic communities across the UK. 

Five panel members joined the board
When the panel was disbanded after one year, most of the panel members wanted to stay involved in the organisation. Five of the panel members joined the board – one was already a trustee. So our board suddenly became very ethnically diverse. What has been very important to our trustee board is:

  • We don’t have just one BAME representative on our board. Our new trustees brought particular skills and expertise and happened to be from different ethnic backgrounds. 
  • Our panelists' experience on the BAME panel gave them a chance to get to know the charity before committing to becoming a trustee. 

Read the Voluntary Arts Open Conversations report about developing strong, effective connections to BAME communities. 

 

Voluntary Arts works to promote and increase active participation in creative cultural activities across the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Organisations are very nervous about taking the first step because we don't want to offend anybody, or be accused of tokenism. Our success was finally getting over that hurdle.
Voluntary Arts
Back to top

Identify skills gaps with a skills audit

A skills audit can help you assess the range of experience and skills that your board has – and identify gaps. Focus your skills audit on the qualities that you need for your charity’s current operations and your strategy. You should look to fill the gaps in skills and experience that you identify in your trustee recruitment. A skills audit can also help you see how you may be affected if a trustee leaves or if your charity faces any new challenges.
 

Back to top

Agree what you're looking for

Once you've identified skills gaps and the aspects of diversity that need strengthening, you should agree how many trustees you're looking for. If you are recruiting more than one trustee, you can look for new trustees who, together, have the range of attributes that you are looking for. This can make recruitment easier. 

Remove requirements that you really don't need because they will just limit the pool of people you are drawing from. For example, do you really need governance experience? Given that trustees as a whole are not diverse, you'll be restricting your search. And remember that you do not need to include skills that are already present on the board – your board collectively needs to have a broad range of strengths but it doesn’t need every trustee to hold each of these strengths. 

Of the skills and attributes you’re looking for, decide which are essential to find in your new trustee and which are desirable. This will be helpful when you write your trustee role description (see Prepare) and when shortlisting applicants (see Shortlist and interview). 

Back to top

Why use open recruitment

I am really proud of recruiting for diversity, I want to be very loud and proud about the benefits. It's not a footnote to our recruitment. We actually want you to be different to the trustees we have already.
Sign Health

With open recruitment you can appeal to a much wider pool of potential trustees than you can through your networks alone. This is important if you are looking for a particular skill or quality, and if you want to diversify your board. Use your own networks too, but always in combination with an open recruitment process. 

Open recruitment will:

  • Demonstrate that your trustee recruitment is a competitive process – trustees who are appointed will feel valued and those you turn down will understand why. 
  • Set expectations – a proper process signals that you value the role of trustees and expect prospective candidates to do so too. A tap on the shoulder suggests a more casual favour. 
  • Give both sides a chance to consider if they are right for each other and to decide if they want to commit.
Back to top

Further reading

Next in the cycle

Plan your recruitment process, draw up a trustee role description, and get ready to engage with candidates.
Back to top

Trustee Recruitment Cycle

The Trustee Recruitment Cycle helps boards recruit openly, for diversity of skills and experience. Providing information, tools and examples from real charities, we take you through the whole recruitment process.

Reflect > Prepare > Advertise > Shortlist & interview > Appoint & induct > Evaluate