Polly Symondson Recruitment | Every cloud….
Polly Symondson Recruitment, PSR, Specialist Regional Recruitment for the Charity Sector, Cheltenham, UK
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Every cloud….

A quantitive discussion with Trustees about the opportunities for increasing board diversity presented by remote meetings

Introduction

The initial UK lockdown saw increased participation in virtual meetings and trustee meetings were no exception. It quickly became apparent that the pivot to a virtual platform was not only very straight forward but also benefited charity and individual board members in ways that had not been envisaged – but in what ways, if any, do we expect them to stay? Is there any real positive change that can be realised by adopting this new working paradigm going forward?

It was decided to appeal to current trustees across the sector to share their experiences. This article explores what was uncovered and assesses how this can be used to drive the change required to diversify Trustee membership.

Background

In 2017 the ‘Taken on Trust’ report, commissioned by the Office for Civil Society and the Charity Commission, recommended that charities do more to promote diversity on their boards(1). The report specifically highlighted the need to encourage applications from beyond the ‘uniformity at board level’ thus mitigating the risk that a narrow perspective culture presents to the effective operation of a charity. This situation was not wholly confined to boards but reflected a concern across the whole sector that we do not reflect the communities we serve(2).

Three years on the output from numerous events, conferences and articles in the sector press continue to highlight the progress being made in many quarters but points to the lethargic pace of change(3,4). This is clear from the (amusing but possibly apocryphal) statement doing the rounds again this year that one in twelve trustees are called David or John. The far less amusing statement from, @CharitySo White, that 95% of charity trustees are white(5) does not support any real progress as the figure was 92% in the 2017 Taken on Trust report(1).

There is recognition that all effective organisational change benefits from leadership and clear communication at all levels(6). Even with this can be difficult to change the course of any organisation, let alone an entire sector, but the factual data and anecdotal examples we have all seen being presented via forums like the (now chartered) IOF conferences, Fundraising Everywhere events, Show the Salary campaign and now during Trustee Week, really highlight how so much of the slow pace of progress is down to those who have blindspots to the reality and the reluctance to put in the effort required to remove barriers and drive change(7). This is not uncommon or isolated to our sector alone; when looking at the resistance to change the CIPD highlights two broad types; resistance to the content of change and the resistance to the process of change(6). So not uncommon but also not acceptable – even if it is only resistance to the process.

Identified opportunities to change, like increasing diversity, need to be framed as ‘should/must be achieved’ and are still too often framed opportunities that ‘could/may be achieved’. 

Objective

This article aims to demonstrate that the move to virtual trustee meetings has been an overwhelmingly positive development and that this new way of operating can be utilised to overcome existing barriers to the lack of diversity on charity boards while not adversely affecting any of the boards function(8). 

In addition, this new working paradigm can contribute to filling trustee vacancies across the sector. Negative aspects are also explored alongside the practices that have been successfully employed to mitigated them.

Methods

An open request was made via LinkedIn for trustees willing to discuss their professional experiences as board members since the current pandemic forced a move to digital meetings. Of the many trustees who responded twelve who offered telephone or online meetings were interviewed. All were current trustees and ranged from members who have been recruited to their first board position during the initial lockdown to those who had served for many years on multiple boards.

Interviews followed an informal discussion with a Q and A format to maintain direction and focus, with all participants being asked broadly the same questions. Interactions were not recorded but detailed notes were taken during each conversation with immediate clarification notes added directly following the call.

Questioning focused on the impact of moving the board function online, exploring the benefits and challenges this presented. Responders were asked about their experiences, the impact for themselves and the charities they represented and what this meant for the future function of their boards. Questions were asked about the current composition of boards and opinions were sought relating to the recruitment of new members.

From these discussions the following thematic groupings emerged. 

    1. Attendance, capability and relationships
    2. Time, efficiency and structure
    3. Impact, outcomes and the future

Results

Attendance, capability and relationships

All those interviewed felt moving to online meetings was straightforward and universally stated that board attendance had improved with near 100% attendance since March. There was one trustee who made reference to early technical problems for some of her colleagues who pushed back against the change due to security fears but these quickly dissipated. All but one board had an existing capability to hold online meetings. The high level of attendance had persisted and it was acknowledged that the global situation had stimulated a strong desire to ‘step up’ amongst board members. More surprisingly perhaps, those who also had full time jobs stated that their attendance had increased but they felt the overall burden was less. Meeting online they were more able to fit trustee responsibilities around work commitments. Some working trustees also felt that fellow retired trustees gained better insight into their balancing act between workplace and board commitments. One of the newest trustees reported their workplace had been very supportive and actively encouraged their participation, making it clear that equal weight should be give to trustee duties for personal development reasons. This had the very liberating effect leading to the new trustee incorporating their trustee commitments within working hours.

None of the responders felt that remote team working had been detrimental to board effectiveness. Although trustees initially felt they would be more isolated and potentially less engaged what actually came through was the strength of collaborative and collective working; a feeling of great team working at board level and actually a feeling of greater connection. 

One trustee  talked of a ‘more humanised and more intimate working relationship as you are in each others houses’. All the trustees who spoke most positively about this cited an increase in what could be termed ‘informal contacts’ – WhatsApp, phone calls and text all increased in and around formal board meetings. Another trustee who joined   during lockdown said that following an informal chat with the CEO the new trustee applied to join and felt it could not have gone better in more stable times. From the initial online meeting with chair, CEO and trustees, through the interview process and the induction they did not feel it would have been improved by face to face contact instead. Six months on they have not met face to face. After being approached because of an identified need for some fundraising expertise on the board, joining is regarded as positive experience.

An interviewee from an internationally based board had a different experience. For them not much logistically had changed. They usually aim for one face to face meeting per annum – which was on hold – but otherwise in terms of board process it was business as usual. Overall they wondered what the fuss was about – the point being made that many international or remote based teams already utilise this working practice and have done so for years. For them geography is only important if it directly pertains to role responsibilities – otherwise it is more important to have the requisite skillset.

The overriding feedback was that a much wider geography would be considered in future recruitment.

Time, efficiency and structure.

The majority now found meetings to be more time efficient. Removing travel,  instilling a more rigid adherence to the agenda and moving the meeting times were all described as time positive changes (some moved to within the working day, some to outside). One members quarterly meetings had become markedly more time efficient with more contact via WhatsApp and phone. The side chat during board meetings still occurred but, due to the improved connections in between, the meetings are now two hours instead of six.

As well as being time positive for trustees the lack of travel made it much easier to re-arrange meetings when required with participants being able to push meetings a few hours to accommodate changes rather than to another day. Trustee involvement in recruitment had also be positively impacted as it had been easier to co-ordinate trustees to sit on interview panels for example.

A widely held view was that these meetings worked better when all participants were on line or all face to face – a mixed forum was seen as sub optimal; though it should be noted that there was not much experience of holding mixed forum meetings overall.

One Chair voiced how the experience has changed from their perspective, they felt that they had become very focussed, rigidly sticking to time and the agenda. Their board as a whole felt that it was important currently the offer greater support to the CEO and the Chair made it their concern that they have weekly calls to ensure the CEO feels supported – this was partly because of no in person meetings being possible but both parties plan to continue the practice.

As mentioned trustees who hold full time paid roles all felt that moving online was better due to the greater flexibility it afforded them. Having a working trustees was also viewed as positively contributing to rapidly changing the structure of meetings by retired members as they brought practices already adopted in the workplace.

Impact, outcomes and the future.

A high proportion of those interviewed stated that they had current trustee vacancies and historically found recruitment difficult. Notably most of the examples of struggling to fill vacancies were from organisations that had tried to fill from their own networks. It is widely acknowledged that this practice contributes to the lack of diversity and it was disappointing to find that it was still so prevalent among the sample of interviewees. 

While several trustees shared that demonstrating diversity and inclusivity strategy and progress is increasingly becoming a caveat for trust funding applications; only two felt that there was no lack of diversity at board level. One of those spoke of a recent period where they had had four vacancies. Due to some of the skills identified a decision was made to not recruit from their own networks but to use a recruiter. By these means they filled all 4 vacancies happily addressing diversity and expertise at the same time and in their opinion really improving their board. 

Following on from our interview, one trustee sent a follow up email simply stating ‘two of our board are called Dave’. So maybe not so apocryphal after all. 

Beyond the positive impacts already covered trustees felt that in the future most meetings should be held remotely, though all were of the opinion that this should include one or two meetings face to face annually. One trustee and chair were clear that not being willing to continue with the current set up would be useful ‘as a lever to pry off dead wood’, which sounds bad but should probably be applauded. Among working trustees there was a heavy preference to online meetings continuing with some stating that if all meetings returned to face to face they would reconsider their participation.

Cost saving was identified as a small improvement. As most organisations already had the capability to meet remotely there was very little expenditure, if any, incurred. Set against the milage, subsistence and venue cost the remote meeting model saves charities a small amount.

Negatives.

Beyond the initial minor technical challenges and perceived reduction in networking opportunities there were not many shared negatives generated by the adoption of this new working paradigm. 

One significant shared negative related to the inability to undertake site visits and therefore meet the wider teams, volunteers or service users at this time and this could not easily be overcome in a virtual space. This feeds into the same desire for at least one in person meeting among the virtual.

Interestingly most of the remaining negatives came from organisations who had not pivoted fully to new working practices. Example such as the board who have stuck rigidly to their monthly meetings and have not changed format or timing has left the trustee interviewed feeling that time is wasted and that the meetings lack focus and drag. Finally the example given by a trustee with a full time job whose board regard the social element as having equal weighting to the agenda items has created needless friction.

Notably some of the trustees from a fundraising background perceived more pressure as there has been an expectation that they function in a more hands-on fundraising capacity in the face of decreased income. 

Discussion

The sample here all reported impressive resolve and determination to do the best for their charities, which has no doubt been reflected by trustees across the sector. Huge credit must be given to these selfless individuals who have provided their knowledge, expertise and time during this crisis, though all expressed the rewarding nature of their involvement. Working online was not seen to provide any barrier to effective functioning of boards and can be argued to have removed geophysical barriers allowing improved efficiency, reduced costs and increased flexibility. It should be noted though that optimal performance requires confident use of the technology, and this appears particularly vital from the Chair and CEO. 

Vacant positions on boards remains an issue though both those recruiting and those recruited using virtual meetings felt that it was a perfectly satisfactory process. Diversity of membership is an acknowledged concern though less than 20% of trustees feeling part of a diverse board is disappointing. That board level strategy for diversity and inclusivity is being assessed as a trust funding criteria is a great move – but it is also shameful that three years after the Taken on Trust report external levers are having to be applied by external stakeholders.

Conclusions

The consensus here is that permanently adopting these new working ways can and should make more of a difference – greater accessibility, greater efficiency and more flexibility have easily been achieved. With the lack of diversity still needing to be addressed this change in working practice should be leveraged for all it is worth.

Those boards with vacancies, get others to help you fill them with people you don’t already know. Boards without diversity start succession planning. Utilise this new more collaborative, inclusive, and efficient set up (including a mixture of online and face to face as you wish) and use it to ensure newcomers start by feeling welcome on a board. All of the negative aspects of online meetings can be mitigated according to those people using them – mainly through embracing it and practice. Choose and use all the tools you need, judicious focused use of something like WhatsApp or texts has saved a great deal of time energy for some.

Virtual meetings at trustee level can save time, money and increase the reach of your making it far easier to create a diverse and inclusive board.

References

  1. Taken on Trust awareness and effectiveness of charity trustees; 2017; https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/658766/20171113_Taken_on_Trust_awareness_and_effectiveness_of_charity_trustees.pdf 
  2. Charity Commission response to Taken on Trust research; Charity Commission; 2017; https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/658758/20171113_Charity_Commission_response_to_Taken_on_Trust_research.pdf
  3. Charities need to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace – Helen Giles – 1st October 2020 – https://www.civilsociety.co.uk/finance/helen-giles-charities-need-to-promote-diversity-and-inclusion-in-the-workplace.html
  4. We need to talk about race in the workplace within charities – Abdul-Jalil Ali – 1st Oct 2020 – https://www.civilsociety.co.uk/finance/abdul-jalil-ali-we-need-to-talk-about-race-in-the-workplace-within-charities.html
  5. @CharitySoWhite 2020, 95% of Charity Trustees are White Tweet – 6th November – https://twitter.com/CharitySoWhite/status/1324682713757028352
  6. Change Management; Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development; 2020; https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/strategy/change/management-factsheet
  7. Sixteen agencies sign Show The Salary pledge in two weeks – 18th Sept 2020 – https://www.civilsociety.co.uk/news/16-agencies-sign-show-the-salary-pledge-in-two-weeks.html
  8. Charity Governance Code – 2017 https://www.charitygovernancecode.org/en