Doing something about the Davids

Lab COO Rebecca Sumner Smith and Chair of Trustees Kit Beazley explain how the Lab is using a ‘trustee-in-training’ model to build a stronger board.

How diverse is your board?

We’ve all heard the statistics about FTSE 100 CEOs being more likely to be called David or Steve than to be a woman – and according to Getting on Board, the trustee recruitment and diversity charity, “charity boards are still less diverse than the FTSE 100”.

So how does yours look?

It’s no secret that the charity sector has a lot of work to do on board diversity. Research undertaken for the Charity Commission in 2017 (Taken on Trust) revealed that two-thirds of charity trustees are male, 92% are white, and the average age of a trustee is 60 to 62 years old. Many potentially great trustees who don’t fit this mould conclude they aren’t the ‘right’ sort of person, or they don’t yet have the ‘right’ experience – so they don’t even apply. Trustee recruitment processes can compound this sense of exclusion by asking for things that aren’t always needed, like a degree or previous board experience, for example.

At the Lab, even if we don’t fare too well on the ‘David test’ (we currently have two – albeit brilliant – trustees by that name), we’re fortunate to have a strong and relatively diverse board of trustees. But like most organisations there is more we can do to embed the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice into everything we do. In 2021 we decided to experiment, and opened up our board recruitment process to look not just for trustees but also for what we’ve called ‘trustees-in-training’. Here’s a bit more about what we did, and what we’ve learnt so far.

What is a ‘trustee-in-training’?

The trustee-in-training role is a 12-month board observer role, intended to open up the Lab’s board to people passionate about and keen to support our work, but who might not have applied for or been directly appointed as a trustee, for whatever reason.

At the time we couldn’t find other organisations who had done anything similar – although we’re sure there must be similar models out there (and we since found out Aldermore is doing something similar in the commercial sphere). Not having found anything to emulate, we’ve had to develop this ourselves as we’ve gone along. It’s been time-consuming, but we view it as a valuable – perhaps even vital – investment.

How does it work?

Each trustee-in-training has a mentor from the current board or Executive team with whom they meet monthly to discuss their learning and their engagement, alongside training about the role of trustee.

We were honest throughout the application process that this was a new type of role for the Lab. Candidates seemed to embrace the fact we were learning as we went along, and that they would be partners in that learning. To facilitate this, we’ve engaged external support to hold three learning moments for us throughout the year: the first just for the mentors, and the second (and possibly the third) to include the trustees-in-training – who are also helping to shape the content of the sessions.

This is the first time we have tried this model, but after the 12 months (and subject to both sides being comfortable, and a vacancy being available) we hope some of our trustees-in-training might join the board as full trustees.

How’s it going?

Our Chair reflects:

“Although my name isn’t David, I am very aware that I fall right into the male, white, middle-aged average charity trustee profile. Because of this, I was initially hesitant to take on the role of Chair at the Lab; but having done so, it is really important to me to build a board that has as much diversity as possible, in all its forms. We do this in a variety of ways, including advertising widely, standardising questions and marking schemes, doing an anonymous sift, holding diverse interview panels, and centring our organisational values throughout the process. By combining these stages with the decision to recruit trustees-in-training alongside full trustees, we have been able to take significant steps forward. In particular, the younger age profile of our ‘T-in-Ts’ means people who might not have felt ready for the full responsibilities of being a trustee can learn by participating in our discussions and training. 

They seem to be enjoying the opportunity, growing in confidence and bringing useful insights and observations to our discussions, even though they don’t get a vote at board meetings. As a result, I am confident that, as other trustees leave, we will have ready-made candidates waiting to step seamlessly into their shoes. And if we don’t have those opportunities, we hope other charities will benefit from the skills and experience the T-in-Ts have learned with us.

Would I do it again? Yes. It’s a bit more effort, but it’s a great way to nurture diversity, bring challenge from new perspectives, and give experience to people who may previously have felt they were not the right fit. It also has the added benefit that, if they are able to step into a trustee role with the Lab, it will help retain ‘corporate memory’ as trustees change.”

We’ll be sharing more – including some reflections from the trustees-in-training themselves – later this year. In the meantime, you can find further detail on the recruitment process here.