Penny Wilson: Trustee diversity is changing, but not fast enough

As CEO of Getting on Board, Penny Wilson has been fighting to make trustee boards more diverse. After one of her LinkedIn posts attracted attention within the sector, Melissa Moody caught up with Wilson to talk through the frustrations that come along when someone says “it’s not all about trustee diversity.”

Melissa: As we speak, your post on LinkedIn has over 20,000 views and over 370 reactions. What was the motivation behind it?

Penny: I was reading yet another report. It was from another infrastructure organisation, and it literally said, ‘it's not all about trustee diversity’. I've read that in several reports in the last few months, and yes it’s not all about trustee diversity. It's also about what happens when people get there and it's about diversity throughout the organisation. But it most certainly is partly about trustee diversity and the idea that you could just ignore it is just really misguided. I felt it was almost irresponsible really to suggest that to people like it’s something we fixed. It gives the implication that we don't need to talk about it.

Melissa: Has trustee diversity actually changed, though? Has there been a lot of talk and not much action, or are things changing but just not fast enough?

Penny: Things are changing, but not fast enough. I think that people are talking about it in a way that they weren't talking about it perhaps three or four years ago. We don't have any up-to-date data, in fact, the last national survey for England and Wales was 2017. I think things probably have shifted a bit, but not a great amount. We can’t get a handle on how much they might or might not change without any national data.

Melissa: Yes, a lot has happened since 2017, with movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM). Do you think there was quite a lot of momentum after BLM, which has slowed a bit now? Because that was two years ago nearly.

Penny: There was momentum. There was some change off the back of that, but it's definitely waned. We hear as well that sometimes people weren't recruited for the right reasons. People tell us they were recruited just because they were Black or Asian, without any attention to all the other useful stuff that they could be bringing to a charity. There was definitely some tokenism, but I wouldn't want people to hold back from recruiting because they're worried about getting it wrong. But there is definitely some internal thinking and discussing to do before you bring somebody onto the board.

Melissa: I’ve heard the same thing; where people were told they were a ‘step too far’ or recruited for the wrong reasons and I couldn't believe it. You'd like to think that things have changed, but it's instances like this that make us realise things haven't moved on as far as people think.

Penny: Every time I make a post like that on LinkedIn, my inbox is filled with messages from people of colour saying, ‘Oh, this is happening’, or ‘that has happened today' and people saying there are not enough white people talking about this. It’s not just people of colour’s issue, there are things we can do as allies. We can use our positions. You're a journalist, I run a charity, we’ve got a voice. We should be using our influence to raise awareness.

Melissa: I completely agree, it’s not just their issue at all. So how do we change? How do we make sure we're being more diverse and recruiting diversely?

Penny: I think we've lost the handle on what governance is. We may come out of a trustee meeting and think: 'well we all agreed on that point,’ or ‘we stuck to time' but actually, we've forgotten that we’re meant to be debating things and disagreeing. We're meant to have different perspectives in the room.

This all feeds right back into who we have on our boards and how we recruit them. We’ve been recruiting people who are going to make our lives easy and it's going to be comfortable. But that's not our job as trustees.

Different perspectives should be relevant. It's not as though we're saying just have any old person on your board. It's got to be someone that relates to the organisation, its field and where it's going. But yes, it includes life experiences, professional experiences - you've got to have different backgrounds on boards.

Melissa: Certainly. And obviously, charities are going to go through difficult times, especially over the next few years with the living crisis, post-pandemic finances and fuel poverty. There will be a lot of charities that will struggle, I assume, and that needs to be reflected.

Penny: Diversity isn't just about lived experience, but it is a big topic. 60% of charities say their boards don't reflect the people that they serve. And that just feels hideously Dickensian.

On a sector-wide basis, we've got 75% of trustees from households above the national median household income. We’ve also got a high level of formal education, so we're often detached from the people that we’re there to support. How can we possibly make decisions about that support if we haven't got their voices on the board?

Also it's one thing to join a board, but what happens [on the board] is really key. We have a lot of new trustees who aren't feeling listened to or feeling valued. They're getting very little instruction. It’s really short-sighted on the side of the existing trustees because why would you recruit someone if you don’t listen to them?

And you don’t want new trustees are coming into that environment, it could be harmful for them. We have a responsibility not to put people in harm's way. We have people coming on board and experiencing ageism and sexism and racism.. And most of those boards where people are experiencing that are oblivious to the fact that their new trustees are feeling that way.

Melissa: From the sounds of it, a worrying number of boards are exactly like that

Penny: I think a part of it is prestige. I think as a trustee myself, we've got a worryingly low level of self-awareness. We’ve been recruited generally because we've got something useful to bring to the charity. We have very little focus on our own development so we tend not to think 'what would I like to know more about?'

Melissa: For charities looking for more diverse trustees, where do they start?

Penny: Your starting point has to be why. Why do you want more diverse trustees? I think the answer shouldn't be moral, I think the answer needs to come straight out of the charity's mission or its strategy. For example, if it's a healthcare organisation, and it knows that this particular condition affects the population in different ways and they're finding that they're not reaching certain demographics or specific health services. It's hard to fix that without having representation on board. It shouldn't be just diversity for the sake of diversity.

Melissa: If trustees are feeling that way. Where do they go?

Penny: Well, they often come to Getting on Board even though that's not official. But the Young Trustees Movement and Action for Trustee Racial Diversity, both have social media platforms where people can seek support from peers. And get to the chair or the CEO, the issue is their problem too. Raising it is important but I think most people are likely just to sit on their hands and leave. That's probably the most common scenario and I think I would never criticize somebody for walking away from a situation where they're being harmed. It's the organisation's loss, but it's upsetting that the organisation may well be oblivious and therefore might just repeat that experience.

There's a lot of talk of diversity, but there is obviously still a ways to go. I'm not quite on the outside looking in, but I do have that unique perspective where I speak to a lot of different CEOs, trustees and/or charity leaders, and people are talking about it. But also it's still quite stagnant.

For the majority of non-national charities and the majority of small to medium-sized charities, which is, of course, most cherries in the UK, diversity is an irrelevance in their minds. It's not something that they think is relevant to them. We're not going to make a change by talking about diversity, we're going to get change by talking about amazing trustees who bring their skills, their talents and their time to help the organisation.

It goes right back to how we recruit. So just asking a friend to become a trustee on your board isn't going to get access to the widest pool of brilliant potential trustees. it's just common sense. That's why we don't recruit staff that way.

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