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Why more charities are turning to the corporate world to boost board diversity

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Ian Joseph, CEO, Trustees Unlimited.

This week is #UKCharityWeek, which is a great point in the year to celebrate the work of charities over the past twelve months. It’s also a time to reflect on the important work of charity trustees, who play such a vital role in running charities and ensuring they achieve their mission.

Unfortunately, many charities struggle to find good trustees – around one in five charities has a trustee vacancy. Other challenges recently came to light in new research about trusteeships from The Charity Commission in association with Cass Centre for Charity Effectiveness, which highlighted, amongst other issues, the lack of diversity on charity boards.

The report, Taken on Trust, The awareness and effectiveness of charity trustees in England and Wales highlighted that out of 700,000 trustees, two-thirds are male and that the average age is 55-64 and 92% are white. As a result, the Commission stated there is a “danger that charity boards might become myopic in their views and in their decision-making.” 

Furthermore, it stated charities face serious skills gaps with charity trustees reporting that they lack relevant legal, digital, fundraising, marketing and campaigning skills at board level. This isn’t helped by some charities being overly reliant on their own networks to recruit trustees – something Trustees Unlimited is trying to change.

Good governance is enhanced by having a diverse board with trustees who can offer a broad range of skills and experience, but how do charities access people from different backgrounds? 

One way is engaging with professionals in the commercial sector who want to become trustees. There are many benefits for the individual trustees and the charities. New trustees will pick up skills and enjoy a new experience serving on a charity board, and charities gain from having professionals with specific commercial experience who can use their skills and experience to help drive the charity forward.

Two years ago, we developed ‘Step on Board’ in partnership with the National Council for Voluntary Organisation’s (NCVO), a board-level volunteering programme that helps employees from the private sector become trustees and non-executives in charities and organisations with a social or environmental mission.

This programme has been hugely successful in engaging companies such as Barclays and Google with the charity sector and in increasing the pipeline of talented trustees.

LHA London, a provider of high quality accommodation in London for students, up and coming working people and young people starting out in London for the first time is one organisation that has benefitted from Step on Board.

LHA London wanted a trustee whose age was more reflective of its young beneficiaries, as well as someone with legal and strong social media and digital skills which their board lacked.

It recruited Alexandra Whiston-Dew, a media lawyer in her 30s from law firm, Mishcon de Reya, who had completed the Step on Board programme. LHA was impressed with her legal credentials and understanding of how to use social media to communicate with young people.

One of the benefits for LHA London was the fact that Mishcon de Reya encourages its employees to volunteer a percentage of hours each year for charitable purposes. LHA had anticipated it would be difficult for a young professional to balance career demands with attending board meetings, subcommittee meetings and away days.

For Alexandra, the role was ideal as she is passionate about assisting young people who don’t have access to the financial resources or the contacts to pursue their life ambitions. Becoming a trustee has also helped her career development by taking her out of her comfort zone.

Alexandra has proved highly valuable to LHA and now sits on the interviewing committee for new trustees, and is involved in other committees too.

For charities looking to improve board diversity next year, broadening their recruitment networks to find high quality professional trustees is essential. For more information about Trustees Unlimited and Step on Board click here.