We need actions, not words, when it comes to board diversity

Board diversity still has a long way to go. Malcolm John, Founder of Action for Trustee Racial Diversity, discusses what needs to happen next.

Malcolm John, Founder of Action for Trustee Racial Diversity (ATRD), gave a thought-provoking presentation at the Good Governance Matters conference on why board diversity is a must. Here’s what he said:  

I’m sure you’ll all be relieved that I don’t intend to bang the drum about the wide range of under-representation on trustee boards, the clear benefits of more diverse trustees and the barriers which those trustees face. However, I do want to add my voice to the increasing noise in the sector since the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of Black Lives Matter in 2020, that what we urgently need are Actions not Words. I believe that this is even more urgent in the area of racial diversity on Boards as the most overt evidence of bias and underrepresentation. The quote which most resonates for me and aptly underpins this conference is from the gay rights activist,Stuart Milk, “We are less when we don’t include everyone.” 

Let’s talk about the stats 

So first, some harsh statistics which shout out on racial diversity on trustee boards. 

  • Only 2.9% of trustees in the sector are women of colour  – representing fewer than 5000 out of 168.0000 trustees 
  •  92% of trustees are white, older, and above average income and education (Charity Commission 2017) 
  • The level of ethnic minority individuals on large charity boards is just 6.6%, representing 418 of a total of 6338 trustees  

To put that in context, 14% of the England and Wales population is from non-white backgrounds. In London, the figure is 36.8%.   

An excellent report by the executive search agency, Inclusive Boards, launched recently, shows some limited progress. It follows up an earlier Inclusive Boards report, which surveyed the top 500 UK Charities by income. A few highlights are:    

  • 29% of these charities have all white Boards; down from 62% in 2018 
  • 51% do not have a minority ethnic woman on their Board; down from 79% in 2018 
  • 16% of their trustees are from minority ethnic backgrounds; up from 7% in 2018. 
  • 20% have two or more minority ethnic trustees; up from 5% in 2018 

See the full report here. 

Why I started ATRD 

I decided to start the campaign when I left my penultimate charity, a key international development charity, after seven years – three as vice chair. At the time, there were no Black and Asian trustees left on the Board – an unacceptable situation for a charity set up to tackle social injustice across the globe. As a parting gift, I offered to help them recruit up to three new Black and Asian trustees. My offer was accepted but not without some challenging internal discussion about the legitimacy of only recruiting Black and Asian trustees. By framing the trustee vacancy specifically to encourage applications from Black and Asian candidates – and with the strong and necessary support of the Chair and the CEO – we were successful in recruiting three high-quality Black and Asian trustees.  

Crucially this proved to me that effecting a significant increase in the numbers of Black and Asian trustees was eminently achievable with the right organisational focus and commitment. However, it also made me realise the enormous gap between the prevailing rhetoric and the shameful numbers on the ground. At that stage, I decided to draw on my own experience, networks and personal commitment to try to redress the imbalance and explore some practical solutions. 

So what have we done so far to try and bring that about?

In 2021 we produced a practical guide for charitieson How to recruit and retain Black and Asian trustees. This reflected that whilst an increasing number of organisations – in light of events in 2020 – 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 to address 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 largely untapped skills, experience and commitment to be effective and valuable trustees.  

Our third resourceisa unique peer support online network – ATRD Connects – solely for aspiring and current Black and Asian trustees. It now has over 550 members. 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 at 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 start at the top – we launched a new initiative – Black and Asian Future Chairs’ Academy (BAFCA) Through BAFCA, we are seeking to develop a pipeline of Black and Asian chairs who would – we hope –  present a more diverse, a more inclusive, and more representative face of charity leadership.

I’ll end with six key steps to achieving trustee racial diversity 

  1. Discuss openly and understand clearly why you need more diversity of thought and of experience on your Board. Here’s where I seek the answer in a quote from Walter Lippman, an early 20th-century American commentator, When all think alike, then no one is thinking”.  Yes, a clear warning about the risk of “groupthink” and “collective blindness” which ensues when all trustees and senior staff come from the same social, educational and racial background and share common life experiences.  
  2. Don’t be tokenistic and just recruit one Black or Asian trustee; that won’t change the Board dynamic.  
  3. Sell your charity in your recruitment adverts in a way and with language which is likely to appeal to people who would not have considered that trusteeship is for them. don’t ask for senior leadership/senior management experience or previous trustee experience;
  4. Don’t be afraid to be explicit in your recruitment advert that you’re specifically seeking Black and Asian trustees; explain why; 
  5. Review your website to ensure that it’s not a barrier to Black and Asian candidates; post on it your intentions to recruit more diverse trustees and why you’re doing so;  
  6. Ensure you give constructive feedback to all unsuccessful applicants 

Most importantly, recognise that inclusive recruitment is not a quick fix. It takes much more time, commitment and resources than you think to reach and engage more diverse networks and individuals. 

Finally, take heed that the challenge does not end with the recruitment process. It extends to charities making sure that once more diverse trustees are recruited, that they stay because you’ve seen the benefits of creating a sustainable, inclusive and welcoming environment for them, and are committed to changing how you operate to achieve that. 


If you’d like to know what else you can do, Malcolm John has written a book called From Here to Diversity: A practical guide to recruiting Black and Asian charity trustees. Order your copy today.