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Challenges for charity trusts: diversity

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 20 Apr 2022

Diversity on boards of trustees was highlighted as a priority for respondents to a CAF/ICAEW study. One respondent explains why it matters.

Diversity is rising up the agenda for charity trustees. More people from various backgrounds want to join trustees, and from a board perspective, there’s a benefit to having diverse opinions and experiences in the room.

At 27 years old, Aaron Thompson is a bridge between the younger and more experienced members on a university’s students’ union Board of Trustees. He first became a trustee while still a student, when he joined his own students’ union. When he left university and started working at professional services firm BDO, he was drawn back to trusteeship. “I loved my trustee experience, and wanted to give back. This is also something my employer supports me in doing.”

He is Vice-Chair of his Board of Trustees. “Our mission is to promote the interests and welfare of students during their study, provide a range of recreational activities and ensure the diversity of our students is recognised, positive action is made and equal and equitable access is pursued.”

Diversity and inclusion is a big priority for trustee boards at the moment, highlighted in a recent research project by ICAEW and the Charities Aid Foundation. This is an issue that particularly matters for Thompson.

“I’m a young man, but I’m also a black man,” he says. “And there aren’t many people of colour on trustee boards. In my first trustee role, in my students’ union, I was the first black president for a very long time. It’s something that people weren’t used to, and equally was completely new to me. In these situations, people try to make you feel comfortable, but even considering their effort it’s not always a comfortable place to be and the issues can’t always be seen or articulated. You are often left with a feeling of imposter syndrome.

“A lot of boards recognise the need to be inclusive and diverse, but to achieve that requires more than just getting people into the boardroom. It’s about continued support and work to ensure that they have the same opportunities to thrive as everyone else. 

“For example, in someone’s first meeting, the rest of the board might use loads of different acronyms and act like everyone’s on the same page. That’s not going to be true. It’s important that trustees are given the support they need to get up to speed and to feel comfortable in the room.”

Getting onto boards generally relies a lot on an individual’s inner circle. That proliferates homogenous board makeup to a great extent. This is something that organisations need to be aware of when bringing in new trustees. To get the diversity that they want, charities need to find ways to widen the talent pool and appeal to people outside of the typical trustee. 

Part of that comes down to what that charity stands for; it needs to appeal to a broader range of people if it wants to bring in diverse trustees, says Thompson. “The charity sector needs to do better at promoting opportunities to young people, introducing them to the work of charities and how they can get involved. Not necessarily just having young people on trustee boards, but, for example, you could start off with an advisory committee, where they wouldn’t be official trustees, but they can feel part of the mission and that they are doing something worthwhile. That becomes a route for them into trusteeship, creating the space for a broader range of opinions and understanding that trustee diversity is not always just a quick fix.”

Thompson is connected to an organisation called the Young Trustees Movement, which is trying to increase the amount of young people on boards. “Less than 3% of charity trustees are under 30.”

Thompson wants to see more people of his age and ethnicity gain the experience that he has; to be able to make higher strategic decisions for an organisation. “The experience alone has benefited me a lot. It also of course develops a wide range of skills including communication, leadership, analytical skills and teamwork. It allows me to think at a more strategic level as opposed to considering the operational, day-to-day issues. It requires me to think about the future, to horizon scan, and not just think about the issues we’re currently facing.”

Diversity and inclusion at ICAEW

Diversity and inclusion is a key pillar of ICAEW's strategy. Discover relevant content, from topical articles on chartered accountancy to professional resources to help you thrive at work.

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