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

11 Oct 2021 Voices

Janet Thorne from Reach Volunteering summarises the findings from its report on the diversity of people applying to be trustees

Board diversity has been a hot topic for several years but has progress been made? In our report examining the diversity of trustee applicants and appointees, Reach Volunteering shows that there are grounds for optimism but there is more work to do. 

At Reach Volunteering we provide a free trustee recruitment service, based on a supported self-service model. Using our own data, we produced a report that analyses 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. 

Analysis of this data shows that there is a diverse pool of candidates and open recruitment is closing the gap. However, there is a disparity in outcomes for candidates relating to age and ethnicity. In short, the candidates are there, the problem is how charities recruit. 

Open recruitment really does increase diversity

A Charity Commission report in 2017 revealed that 92% of trustees are white, two thirds are male and the average age is between 55 - 64. The good news is that diversity of appointees through Reach’s service is much better across all three characteristics than in the Charity Commission’s report. 

The gender balance for appointments almost achieved parity in 2020, 19% of appointees were under 35 (compared to 1% in the Charity Commission data) and the proportion of appointees who do not identify as white was 16% (against 8%). 

Open recruitment (at least, through Reach’s service) really does improve board diversity across these protected characteristics. Given that over 80% of trustees are appointed 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 (even more diverse than the appointees, for age and ethnicity). There is clearly an appetite amongst under-represented groups to become trustees.

Disparities in outcomes

Reach’s report highlights that there is a large disparity in outcomes for different groups, which suggests that even those boards which do recruit openly, do not always recruit fairly. Analysing ‘success’ rates (the chances of applicants being appointed), Reach found that: 

  • Younger people (under 35 years old) are less likely to be appointed. The 55 - 64 age group are 80% more likely to be appointed than the 18 - 34 age group. 
  • Candidates' chances of being appointed are, in part, determined by their ethnicity. 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. 

It is clear that some boards have a long way to go to develop inclusive recruitment practices and although change can be hard and slow, it is possible. 

‘If we’d recruited by a tap on the shoulder, we’d not have had this kind of passion’

Girls Friendly Society (GFS) chose to develop a more inclusive approach to assure their future. Using a skills audit, the charity identified the skills that were most needed, but also wanted to increase diversity around ethnicity, age, sexual orientation and disability. The challenge was to develop a recruitment process that would attract people with this range of skills and characteristics. 

GFS advertised through a wide range of channels, and proactively encouraged friends and supporters to share the opportunity with their networks. The charity invested time and effort in updating its recruitment pack, and held ‘short and punchy’ interviews with applicants including at times to suit working people. 

The charity also ran online ‘welcome’ events for people to find out more. These were a real game changer according to Leanne Massey, chair of GFS, who said: ‘“We shared with a real sense of honesty, about GFS, the opportunities, our strategy and what we are looking to do. We were overwhelmed with attendees and the conversation went on for much longer than we expected! They were really engaged with our work, and asked lots of challenging questions. The result was that we received over 45 applications from women looking to get involved at trustee and committee level.” 

The end results were impressive. GFS appointed eight trustees (including three under 30 years old), three committee chairs, as well as generated a pipeline of further committee members and future trustees. The appointees brought the expertise that GFS was looking for, and much greater diversity in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability. Massey added: “If we’d recruited by a tap on the shoulder, we’d not have had this kind of diversity, and we’d not have had this kind of passion. The process itself attracted people who understood where we’re going, and who want to be a part of that.”

Making the change

There is much to be gained from creating a diverse board with a rich mix of trustees that have a range of lived, learned and practice expertise. However, it takes resolve and commitment. Fortunately, help is at hand:  

  • As part of its trustee recruitment service (free to charities with a turnover of under £1m) Reach can connect boards to a diverse pool of candidates. In collaboration with Getting on Board, Association of Chairs and Small Charities Coalition, Reach also produces the Trustee Recruitment Cycle which provides guidance, tools and inspiration to develop inclusive practices at every stage of the trustee recruitment process.
  • The Young Trustees Movement advertises trustee vacancies for free and, along with Social Practice ENT and Getting on Board, provide free / low-cost, high-quality training, resources and support to help diversify boards.
  • Action for Trustee Racial Diversity has published a specialist guide on recruiting and supporting Black and Asian trustees

Our report dispels the myth that the lack of board diversity is due to the lack of candidates and underlines the importance of open recruitment. 

The real problem is how boards recruit: too few boards recruit openly, and even fewer recruit in a truly inclusive way. All candidates should have an equal chance and not be at a disadvantage based on their ethnicity, age or any other characteristic.

As a sector, we should be fully embracing this interest in trusteeship and using open recruitment to create real change. 

Janet Thorne is CEO at Reach Volunteering, the full report Trustee Diversity: Who is applying and who is appointed? is available on the charity’s website

Civil Society Voices is the place for informed opinion, and debate about the big issues affecting charities today. We’re always keen to hear from anyone, working or volunteering at a charity, who has something to say. Find out more about contributing and how to get in touch.


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