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How to create a diverse board of trustees

Written by Kate Ferguson, chair of The Advocacy Project.

Diversity on trustee boards is a hot topic of conversation among charities but this doesn’t always translate into practice. Creating a diverse board is challenging and hard work. Recruiting people who aren't typically represented on boards — including individuals with disabilities — takes time and energy.

But achieving diversity brings huge rewards, both for your organisation and the people you support. Having trustees with a range of skills and experiences allows you to set a strategic direction for your organisation and fulfil your aims.


Enlist people with lived experiences

It's important your board  reflects the communities you work with. By having trustees with real experiences, your decision making will be more informed and supportive of service users. For some charities, this may involve looking at your board's gender split, age groups and ethnicity. Whereas for other organisations, it could involve recruiting trustees from specific population groups. For The Advocacy Project, it means recruiting trustees who have direct experience of the issues we work on — learning disabilities, mental health conditions and dementia.


Recruit people with a range of skills

Diversity of trustee skills is also essential for good governance. At The Advocacy Project, we carry out skills audits of all trustees to analyse the board's existing strengths and gaps in skills and experience. This enables us to identify and address imbalances.

It's important not to rely solely on skills audits though, as this can lead to an over-focus on professional disciplines that overlooks  first-hand experience. You need a combination of lived experiences and professional skills to ensure that:

  • service users can influence decisions 
  • the board has the skills it needs to drive forward your organisation's strategy.

Be transparent

Transparency is key when it comes to advertising and recruiting for trustees. At The Advocacy Project, we recruit through open competition using competency-based interview questions. The role profile openly states the skills and experience we seek. We also advertise trustee roles in diverse communities in formats that are accessible to a range of people, such as our community languages or easy read leaflets.


Monitor diversity

It's important to regularly review diversity on your board. At The Advocacy Project, we monitor our board composition to ensure we have the right proportions of professional trustees and trustees who are experts by experience.

Two thirds of our board members have financial, legal, business development, medical and other backgrounds. The remaining third have experience of mental health conditions, learning disabilities or dementia. As well as skills and experience, we also review age, gender and ethnicity.


Establish positive working relationships

Creating a diverse board requires commitment. Ultimately, you want to create an environment where divergent views are welcomed, and individuals feel confident sharing their ideas. To achieve this, trust and mutual respect is essential — both between board members and between the trustees and the executive team. It takes time to build this. There's no shortcut.

As part of trustee inductions, our board members meet with staff to introduce themselves and find out about everyone's roles in the organisation. This promotes positive working relationships between trustees and staff members. As a result, everyone is able to work together effectively to further the charity's strategy and mission.


Encourage inclusive and accessible decision making

Once you've recruited a diverse board, the hard work doesn't stop there. It's important that you break down barriers to trusteeship by ensuring all board members can participate and contribute to decision making. You need to provide accessible information and adopt inclusive practices.

Ahead of board meetings, we hold preparation meetings to ensure trustees understand the items for discussion. This is an opportunity for individuals to ask questions and make notes ahead of the formal meetings.

We have also used this preparation time to develop a report writing guide to support people in preparing easy read summaries of board papers. We encourage trustees and staff to colour code key items for further discussion and decision making in all reports. Our language guide also provides guidance for report writing by identifying words that individuals might struggle to understand and providing plain English alternatives.

We provide trustees with financial summaries of management accounts, which present key information in a visual and accessible way.

During board meetings, we have staff members present to provide support to trustees where needed. For example, in helping individuals to identify the correct papers for discussion and answering questions. It's also important to think about the speed of meetings and ensure the agenda doesn't run off course.

There are a variety of tools charities can use to support trustees in board meetings, including providing subtitles on screens. Another option is to incorporate traffic light cards into board meetings, so individuals can alert people when they want to ask questions.

We have worked in partnership with NCVO to develop the Good Trustee Guide in easy read. This forms the basis for our trustee inductions providing key information on the role of a trustee.

In addition, we have improved our use of technology to enable more consistent and effective preparation for and participation in board meetings, using tools such as Dropbox and Skype.


Chair seeks feedback and encourages participation

Chairs of trustees play a crucial role in creating inclusive boards, making sure everyone has the time and space in meetings to raise their views. Our Chair has one to one discussions with trustees in between formal meetings, to ensure everyone feels able to make a full contribution and that their skills and experiences are being used effectively.



Page last edited Mar 14, 2017 History

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