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Potential trustees are put off by fears of racism, research finds

25 Aug 2020 News

Charity boards should do more to break the stereotype of “a club filled with old white men”, according to research into the recruitment of new trustees.

The research was conducted by Getting On Board, a charity which works to match individuals with trustee boards. It found that “experience and expectation of racism” put off some potential trustees who were younger or from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Getting On Board’s findings are based on two focus groups, with a total of 50 participants, as well as survey responses from 30 more people. The report has anonymised all observations. 

‘Tick-box exercise’

Potential trustees identified a number of barriers, including the belief that boards are closed-off to younger people and ethnic minorities, and the fear that their role as a trustee would be “like a tick-box exercise” rather than allowing them to make a substantial contribution.

One person said that they previously left a “trustee-style role” because: “I felt intimidated around lots of white people. Your voice is undermined and you feel like a minority.”

Another feared that some trustees “take on the role because it is a nice thing to talk about in their dinner party set”.

Respondents also said that they might be put off applying for trustee roles because they did not know what they could offer to the board or would struggle to find the right charity for them.

Participants argued that strong encouragement and mentorship from people around them made a difference when deciding whether to apply for roles.

Fishing in a small pool

Getting On Board has made a series of recommendations, including an end to “informal” recruitment processes and using new networks in which to advertise positions.

It also suggests that charities drop requirements that new trustees must have prior experience on a board, to avoid “fishing in a predominantly white, older, male pool” of potential candidates.

Penny Wilson, the chief executive of Getting On Board, wrote that the behaviour she had heard about at some trustee boards was “despicable”. 

Wilson said: “The experience and expectation of racism were deeply shocking and upsetting. It was only by listening that we have heard how these were based in repeated experience. They weren’t empty concerns.”

One person told Getting On Board that they viewed joining a trustee board as something “bestowed upon people when they have a lot of influence, power and success. I didn’t know you could apply to become a trustee”.

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