How to attract and retain unusual suspects to boards and committees

Sam Hawkins is the Equality and Inclusion Project Officer at the University of Leeds and was the former Liberation Officer and Trustee at the University of Nottingham Students’ Union.

One thing I have noticed working in the higher education sector is that “inclusion and diversity” are becoming important priorities for institutions – but many are unclear on how to make them actually happen.

There are for example calls to diversify the membership of committees and boards. This is amplified by research that emphasises the impact of underrepresentation in governance processes. For instance, research by Cass Business School in 2017 illustrated that two-thirds of charity board members are men – the average age is between 55-64 years old, 92% are white, and 75% report annual salaries significantly higher than the national median household income.

In addition to this, social psychology highlights that a lack of diversity perpetuates group-thinking, and ultimately, dysfunctional decision-making. This demonstrates that boards need to be made up of critical friends with a diversity of thought, experience, and background.

Students’ union charities are unique in the sense that a proportion of board members may be sabbatical officers or current students which deviates from the usual demographic expectations of board members. But it should be the moral imperative of all charitable organisations – including universities – to diversify their ranks to better reflect the population that it serves, and boards should be no exception.

Getting on board

For all boards the recruitment of new trustees is a cyclical activity where current trustees’ end-of-tenure is known in advance, making smooth succession planning possible. During our most recent trustee recruitment window at the University of Nottingham Students’ Union, we identified an applicant who, while eminently suited to the position, would benefit from more specific board experience before a substantive appointment as a trustee at any organisation.

So we created a Lay Trustee Development Programme – a year-long mentoring scheme for unsuccessful applicants to receive monthly mentoring sessions with an existing Lay Trustee. These sessions were designed, implemented, and evaluated in partnership with the identified mentee. In addition, the mentee attends meetings of the organisation’s trustee board and its sub-committees, in an observation-only capacity.

This allows for “unusual suspects”, who may have little-to-no non-executive board experience, to develop their skills and become accustomed to the culture of a trustee board. In turn, this contributes to the long-term goal of diversifying governance processes not just at our organisation, but across the higher education sector, too.

Diversity manifests itself in the visible and invisible, inherited and acquired, physical and cognitive. As we know, homogenising the experience of all individuals within an aggregated social cohort assumes a representative picture of the people within this. However, we know this ignores – and devalues – individual differences. Diversification should not be a tick-box exercise to simply improve HR ratios – it is a moral imperative of institutions to include those who have been and are currently excluded.

Organisations need to fully understand the skills, experience, and background of board members through considerate audits to understand what is missing, and actively seek to improve this for the betterment of end-users. Of course, all of this is underpinned by the assumption that members feel comfortable disclosing these characteristics to their organisation.

Therefore, ensuring these spaces are appropriately supporting and are safe is crucial for retaining a more diverse membership. Note that these safe spaces need not be non-critical, as effective governance requires challenge to enable higher quality and more original decision-making.

Is compensation due?

However, there remains an issue in appropriately compensating an individual for their time and contributions – an important consideration for the mentees in our programme. This is especially true for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, where too often they are used as a sounding board and not recognised for their contributions.

As charity trustees cannot and must not be paid without a specific exemption in the governing documents, this issue is not pertinent in the space of students’ unions. But at Nottingham, we were keen to offer sponsorship to the identified mentee as part of the programme to develop their skills and provide them with the expertise to operate in a more substantive position, either within our organisation or elsewhere in the future.

Despite this, this lesson should be thought of elsewhere, in situations which better lend themselves to financial recompense or other rewards. For instance, we see similar suspects on university committees and boards because of mechanisms that historically, and currently, prevent access for diverse professionals. Reciprocal mentoring schemes which remove the hierarchical and unilateral knowledge transfer from more senior personnel allows both individuals to learn from each other’s experiences and meet each other where they are at.

“The act of not including someone is, by default, excluding them” is as definitive as it sounds. Measuring the absence of something, especially abstract concepts such as inclusion and belonging relies on organisations placing trust in their board members and their data-gathering procedures. This should be coupled with the efforts of an organisation to create environments where these difficult conversations are not brushed under the carpet, because if so, the default is exclusion.

Inclusion is, and will always be, more than just a tick-box exercise. Institutions should look at innovative interventions to create opportunities for diverse individuals to learn the skills they need to succeed, such as the Lay Trustee Development Programme. Not only will this contribute to the goal of diversifying the make-up of boards, but it will also achieve the bigger picture of a more inclusive and representative university, students’ union, and higher education sector.

One response to “How to attract and retain unusual suspects to boards and committees

  1. Great piece Sam. And I agree lots of institutions are seeking practical answers to this. Watch out for Advance HE’s Board Diversity Practice Project outcomes soon. A lot of the issues (and answers) lie in the Board’s appetite for innovation and its perception of ‘risk’ – which ultimately is all about culture and mindset, and strong leadership.

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