Trustee Board Diversity In The Charity Sector

How To Tackle The Lack Of Trustee Board Diversity In The Charity Sector

Trustee Board Diversity In The UK Charity Sector

We're probably more diverse than the general public, but we have a major issue with trustee board diversity in the charity sector.  There have been endless diversity commitments, conferences and reports, but no change.  Doing more of the same isn't likely to change anything, so this is what I think we need to do differently to promote trustee diversity.

You can also health check your charity governance in 30 mins, with access to a huge range of trustee board resources to help you.  Complete all 8 questionnaires for your assessment against the Charity Excellence Diversity Standard.  Plus lots more - quick, simple and very effective.

Find Funding, Free Help & Resources - Everything Is Free

Register Now!


In the charity sector we're all really, really committed to diversity.  But are we?  If you were to add up all the people in the BAME, LGBTQI+ and Trans and disability communities, plus women and young people - older white men like myself are a tiny minority.

Maybe we're not quite as good, as we'd like to think we are?

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?  We too often recruit for 'cultural fit', when what we're actually doing is recruiting for 'group think'.  What we should be doing is recruiting to meet the Board's cultural needs.

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.....................

92% of charity trustees are white.' Charity Commission, Taken on Trust Report, November 2017

Just beating up the pale, male and stale charity trustees 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 who excel in promoting diversity - how about focussing some of the effort in celebrating and promoting them, as a positive example to all of us? Giving 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.

'In our experience, to date only one organisation has ever commented upon the diversity of our Trustee Board / Personnel, and stated that we are diversity personified’.  Nav Mizra, Dads UnLtd


Diversity is quite rightly included in the Charity Governance Code, but where are the targets?  What's 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. You can access the standard here. Or better still join the CEF here - it only takes 2 mins.

And why haven't the charity regulators acted?  Make reporting diversity and action being taken to address any weaknesses a statutory requirement in annual reports.

And whilst Sport  England and Arts Council England now include diversity in grant applications, why isn't this standard practice amongst grant makers.  Money talks.

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.

The level of ethnic minority representation on our largest charity boards (6.6%) is lower than in FTSE 100 companies (8.2%). Inclusive Boards, 2018

We know, but we’re not really interested

I completely accept that the biggest issue is complacency/culture amongst the many like myself. Trustees are volunteers, but they have clear statutory obligations, which are not optional. For those not doing so, we need to call them out and hold them robustly to account. What would really help drive change would be for funders to take the lead and make diversity a condition of funding; money talks.

We know, but don’t think it’s important

Some trustee boards are hugely impressive, but far too many don't work well. Perhaps entirely understandably, some feel that focussing on performance is the priority. We need to help them understand that being diverse is an essential component of this. For those who might need a 'business performance argument', there's this McKinsey Report.

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. In particular, we need to invest in and actively promote those charities that are already doing great work to support recruitment of trustees from a wider pool. You can find out who they are, as well as practical advice on recruiting trustees here.


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.

I’m too busy

Being really busy with a young family/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.

I won’t be able to contribute and/or be listened to

‘Board’ is 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.

I can’t

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 which 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.

Charity trustee induction, mentoring and development

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 what support they would need to be able to do so and then make sure they get it.


It applies for 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. Try this, for simple, practical steps to make your reports more effective.

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.

Charity Trustee Board Culture

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. You might even consider paying for child care.

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?

Access All The Free Charity Trustee Resources & Help

A registered charity ourselves, the CEF works for any non profit, not just charities.

Plus, 100+downloadable funder lists, 40+ policies, 8 online health checks and the huge resource base.

Quick, simple and very effective.

Find Funding, Free Help & Resources - Everything Is Free.

Register Now!

To access help and resources on anything to do with running a charity, including funding, click the AI Bunny icon in the bottom right of your screen and ask it short questions, including key words.  Register, then login and the in-system AI Bunny is able to write funding bids and download 40+ charity policy templates as well.

Register Now
We are very grateful to the organisations below for the funding and pro bono support they generously provide.

With 40,000 members, growing by 2000 a month, we are the largest and fastest growing UK charity community. How We Help Charities

View our Infographic

Charity Excellence Framework CIO

14 Blackmore Gate
United Kingdom
HP22 5JT
charity number: 1195568
Copyrights © 2016 - 2024 All Rights Reserved by Alumna Ltd.
Terms & ConditionsPrivacy Statement
Website by
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram