How charities can bridge the gap in Black and Asian representation on trustee boards

01 November 2023

By Malcolm John, founder of the campaign organisation Action for Trustee Racial Diversity and a trustee of the Association of Chairs

The aim of Action for Trustee Racial Diversity (ATRD), which I started some four years ago, is specifically to address the significant underrepresentation of people from Black and Asian backgrounds on charity trustee boards.

I’m delighted to have been invited by Action Planning to blog about what charities might need to do to increase the diversity of your board, and to highlight why board diversity is so important.  This article will also showcase the suite of resources ATRD has developed to support charities and suggest actions which charities might wish to consider in their effective engagement, recruitment and retention of more diverse new trustees.

First, the harsh statistics on racial diversity on trustee boards 

71% of trustees are recruited through an informal process 
92% of trustees are white, older and above average income and education 
2.9% of trustees in the sector are women of colour – representing fewer than 5,000 out of 168,000 trustees 
Compare that with the 14% of people from Black and Asian backgrounds in England and Wales. 

Practical resources

A mapping survey we carried out to understand better the barriers to racial diversity on charity boards showed that boards made up very largely of white, middle class and university educated men and women showed a serious lack of knowledge and awareness of the huge pool of unused talents, skills and experience within Black and Asian networks and individuals.   

So we set about addressing these barriers by developing three key resources:

One, we produced in 2021 a practical guide for charities, From Here to Diversity – How to recruit and retain Black and Asian trustees. This reflected that, whilst an increasing number of organisations in light of events in 2020 (Black Lives Matter and the horrific murder of George Floyd in the US) are keen to take active steps to address racial inequalities, more often than not they don’t know how to go about doing it.  

Our second resource is a unique database of currently over 550 Black and Asian network organisations across sectors and across the UK. This addresses the major issue of charities’ lack of access to and knowledge of more diverse networks. We capped it at 500 but there are so many more. The database highlights the thousands of Black and Asian individuals out there with the largely untapped skills, experience and commitment to be effective and valuable trustees. We’ve drawn up the list largely through our own online research – if we can do it, anyone else can, given the right resources and commitment. 

Our third resource is a unique peer support online network, ATRD Connects, solely for aspiring and current Black and Asian trustees. It now has over 550 members.

Awareness of the role

It would be true to say that trusteeship is very largely another country for those of us who are not white, are younger and are below average income and education; significantly more so if you’re young, Black, Asian or working class.

A questionnaire survey which we carried out last year for aspiring Black and Asian trustees revealed a considerable lack of awareness of the role of trustees. Many, where they’d heard of trusteeships, did not think that it was a role for them. Many were at a loss as to how to go about finding trustee vacancies or even, if they found them, how to apply successfully.

Even when they got to the application stage, they would look at the website profiles of existing trustees and would rarely ever see anyone who looked like them. The network seeks to address these challenges. 

This year – and  in the firm belief that diversity and inclusion starts at the top – we launched a new initiative, Black and Asian Future Chairs’ Academy (abbreviated as BAFCA 🙂) and not to be confused with the high-profile and historically undiverse film and theatre award. Through BAFCA, we are seeking to develop a pipeline of Black and Asian chairs who would – we hope – present a more diverse, more inclusive and more representative face of charity leadership.

The Benefits of Diversity 

  • Diversity avoids the risk of “groupthink” and “collective blindness” that occurs when all trustees and senior staff come from the same social, educational and racial background.
  • Diversity gives those you support the reassurance and confidence that you’re keen to reflect them at your top level and adapt and deliver their services accordingly.
  • It enables you to bring in people with new ideas and different experiences; and particularly  younger people with different perspectives. Black and Asian communities have a proportionately younger age range than the white population: 54.4% of Black and Asian people are in the 18-50 age range, compared to 42.6% of White people. 
  • Diversity enables you to draw on a wider pool of talent.
  • It brings “lived first hand experience” of the issues that you seek to address.

So what can charities do?

First, have an internal discussion, ideally facilitated by an independent consultant, about why you want to increase the diversity of your board, and how a more diverse board would increase your organisational effectiveness. 

Then think about adopting these eight steps to inclusive recruitment:

1. Recruit specifically for the skills and experience your charity needs; skills and diversity audits

2. Reflect in your advert the type of diverse applicant you want 

3. Consider the language of your recruitment pack: not asking for previous trustee experience; not asking for senior management experience. And get someone to proof it for EDI

4. Don’t just recruit one person from a Black and Asian background, which might appear as tokenism

5. Seek to have a diverse recruitment panel

6. Offer different ways of applying for different types of applicants, eg Inclusive interviewing; questions in advance; zoom or face to face 

7. Give feedback to unsuccessful applicants

8. Recognise that a proper inclusive recruitment process takes twice as long as you originally plan. Accept it's not a quick fix but requires attaching high priority to the time, effort, resources and commitment to do it properly 

Making it work

The challenge of achieving more racially diverse trustee boards does not end with recruitment. It extends to charities making sure that, once Black and Asian trustees are recruited, they remain with the charity for their full term of appointment and do not feel excluded or marginalised.  

Some key actions are:

Ensure that the views and reflections of new Black and Asian trustees are proactively sought both at and outside of board meetings, and not just on diversity and inclusion issues.

Chairs and other trustees must ensure they provide support to new Black and Asian trustees and behave in a way that helps to lessen any feeling of “imposter syndrome” for first-time Black and Asian trustees.

Get regular feedback from the new trustees on the inclusiveness of the charity; not just after a few weeks but also a few months after.

Offer a “buddy” from the Board to support and enable new Black and Asian trustees to carry out their roles effectively.

Most importantly, think how your governance arrangements might need to change to include a new trustee, who is young and in full-time employment, as opposed to the older, retired or partly retired trustee or freelance consultant. For instance, hold board meetings in the evening rather than during the day.

Action for Trustee Racial Diversity (ATRD) is a volunteer led independent campaign, founded by Malcolm John, working with cross-sector partners to address the under-representation of people from Black and Asian backgrounds on charity trustee boards. ATRD aims to support charities to bridge the 6% under-representation gap (from 8%-14%) by recruiting an additional 10,000 Black and Asian trustees by 2026.

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