Ian McLintock: How to tackle the lack of board diversity

We face huge challenges and need to appoint the best amongst us to lead. To do that, we need to recruit from the biggest possible pool of trustee candidates; the whole community. As a sector, we don't, but how can any charity board claim to represent its community, if it isn't representative of it? CEO of Charity Excellence, Ian McLintock explains what the issues are and how to address them.

Have you ever heard about the not uncommon phenomenon of homophily in recruiting? People often hire those who think (and often look) like themselves. It feels great to work with people who share our own perspectives and beliefs. Sound familiar?

And then there's moral licensing. There is good evidence that those working for ethical organisations are willing to work for less and work harder too: does that sound familiar too? However, there is equally good evidence that this gives them a reason to offset this against bad behaviours. It may be that volunteering for a good cause, also allows me to feel OK about only appointing people like me.

And worse, here's an interesting article from Harvard Business Review on how leaders ignore unethical behaviour.

And, for those of us committed to diversity, if our conversations are all about why we can't, or why it's someone else's fault, perhaps that's moral licensing too? Which brings me to the stat that 92% of charity trustees are white.'

Just beating up the pale, male and stale en-masse isn’t helping

Referring to a group as ‘dark-skinned, female and pretty useless’ would create justifiable outrage, but 'pale, male and stale' is fundamentally the same sentiment. Yet its use is accepted throughout a sector that prides itself on its commitment to equality. Applying it to the majority of trustees, who are best placed to bring about the change needed, isn't likely to help persuade them. I recognise (and share) the justifiable anger, but it'd be more effective to focus on solutions, not blame.

Here's an interesting HBR article on why criticising people actually makes it more difficult for them to change. And that's not just academic theory. I'm one of those passionate about promoting it, but no longer go to diversity events. I've had enough of being the enemy and the hoots of laughter whenever the 'pale, male & stale' thing is dragged out of the closet again, as it inevitably is.

And, there are charities that excel in promoting diversity - how about focussing some of the effort in celebrating and promoting them, as a positive example to all of us? Given that they're already achieving, what we all claim we really want to, a round of applause wouldn't be asking for too much. Particularly from funders.

What should the sector do instead?

What's been missing is a measurable standard to recognise them, provide a tool for those who want to, but don't know how and to hold to account those who won't. The free Charity Excellence Framework online toolkit does just that, using its Diversity Excellence Standard to assess, report and link results to resources.

And, whilst I recognise the arguments against quotas, the time for us to act has long passed. The majority of European countries have done so for commercial companies. Other steps might include, adopting the Rooney Rule for board and CEO selection panels, or other forms of positive action.

I completely accept that the biggest issue is complacency and/or culture amongst the many like myself. Trustees are volunteers, but they have clear statutory obligations, which are not optional.

Perhaps what would really help drive change would be for funders to take the lead and make diversity a condition of funding; money talks.

We want to, but can’t recruit

Some don’t understand the need to speak to those we wish to recruit using their own language, about what’s important to them and using channels they use. If you don’t know what those might be, asking them usually works and, for young people, the Breath of Fresh Air report has an excellent checklist.

We need to invest in and actively promote those charities that are already doing great work to support the recruitment of trustees from a wider pool.

And, we're all responsible, so what can my organisation do?

The sector talks endlessly about it, but working groups, reports, articles and commitments aside, there seems to have been little actual change in sector diversity. However, there's a lot that charities and individuals can (and should) do themselves.

Being really busy with a young family and/or busy careers is an issue for some. Consider if changing the days/times meetings are held would make it easier for them, or introduce conference calling, or one of the increasingly available virtual meeting platforms.

‘Board’ is also very much a business/professional term, so can be off-putting for some. In recruiting, we need to ensure that we communicate what we do in a way that's engaging and meaningful to them. And a good starting is making our meetings relevant and interesting. If your meetings aren't great, read this for some practical steps you can take to change that.

For some, the board environment may simply feel too alien, particularly the most vulnerable. If they can’t come to us, we should go to them and work with them in a way that will enable them to contribute – meet them in their own environment, not ours.

And recognise that it’s not just about recruiting. Having someone on a board who feels or is unable to contribute, because he or she hasn't been actively engaged or supported, is tokenism, even if we don't mean it.

Induction, mentoring and development

These things should be available for every trustee, but for those for whom being on a board is outside their experience, it’s critical. On interviewing someone, talk to him or her about how they feel they could best contribute, discuss and agree on what support they would need to be able to do so and then make sure they get it.

Communication also applies to everyone, but even more so to those who are new, don’t have specific professional skills or face communication challenges. Ensure that reports are succinct, written in plain English and avoid acronyms unless these can be understood by everyone.

If someone has an audio or visual impairment, ask them what would help them. For example, providing reports in large font size, using a clear font, such as Arial and bold print. It's neither difficult nor expensive.


Beneficiaries and others may not have the professional skills other board members do, but that makes their contribution different, not less than. Ensure this is recognised and understood and, not least, that they are demonstrably valued and made welcome. And if the culture on your board is a bit 'pale, male and stale', where they may be ignored, or talked over (ever so politely), if you accept it, that makes you complicit. We should all be prepared to break into a conversation and actively support someone.

Research appears to show that women are often ignored, or interrupted by men, but also that, when a woman is first to speak, other women are more likely to speak too. An easy step to take, is for the Chair to invite a woman to speak first. And, for others less likely to speak, ask them beforehand how they would like to be heard.

And be aware of the inadvertent impact of well-meaning behaviour. For example, like many trustees, I don't claim expenses, but for some that might be the difference between being able to attend, or not. Always make sure your trustees know that being paid expenses is expected.

What will you do?

We're all responsible and it's time to turn this long-standing problem into the strength it should be. What are you going to do to help make that happen?

This piece was originally written for The Charity Excellence Framework’s website which can be viewed here

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