How we diversified our foundation’s board


Samia Khatun


As a Trustee of the Hilden Charitable Fund, I have been participating in events run by the UK’s Association of Charitable Foundations for several years. I am still surprised at the lack of representation within our sector and the fact that not much seems to have changed.

I recognise that change is a not something that happens overnight, which is true, yet the lack of diversity has been known for some time. Examples include evidence in the 1996 Deakin report, a landmark report on the British voluntary sector.

I don’t believe the status quo has been maintained due to a lack of desire to have more inclusive boards. I have attended events, discussions, and seminars on good practice in grant-making, and there is a general consensus that having a more diverse board is highly beneficial, but the question people stumble on is the ‘how’.

According to latest estimates, the average age of trustees in England and Wales is 61.

64 per cent of all trustees are men and 92 per cent are white compared with 86 per cent of the UK population as a whole. 75 per cent of trustees have household incomes above the national median. Seven out of 10 trustee chairs are men.

People say that diversity isn’t possible in the grant-making sector since many trusts and foundations are family run. But diversity is achievable within family trusts if you are willing to try a different approach – starting with how you recruit new trustees. 81 per cent of trustees are still recruited through word of mouth or personal recommendations.

Below I outline Hilden Charitable Fund’s experience which I hope may be helpful to others seeking greater diversity, equality and inclusion.

Open applications
First we made a conscious effort to broaden our reach through an open application process. We established an internal Diversity Working Group responsible for overseeing the process, and conducted a trustee audit and review to identify the skills gap within our existing board. It was thought that the board would benefit from new trustees who could bring experience and understanding of one of two Hilden Charitable Fund’s priority areas – refugees and homelessness – and who would have proven experience of the voluntary sector, charity governance, service delivery and management. Discussions were also held on the need for gender and age balance.

The audit and review was time-consuming but not overly formal. We discussed, presented ideas and the board decided to just go for it. Some trusts may find the prospect of doing an audit daunting and feel they need to employ an expert consultant to carry it out. We did not feel this was necessary and the board was confident that we could recruit new talent. While at times the discussions were lengthy it was actually an enjoyable and creative process.

Casting the net
Following the audit the working group put together a trustee application pack, including a job description and person specification. The vacancy was advertised on all relevant networking websites. Additionally we emailed current and past recipients of Hilden Charitable Fund grant aid. It was thought those working directly with beneficiary organisations could bring frontline knowledge that could enhance our grant-making. This was a huge departure from when we first recruited trustees back in 1963, when a retired banker was deemed the ideal candidate.

Following the advertising, the working group developed shortlisting criteria and interview questions. The interview was also a chance for applicants to find out more about our organisation and ways of working and to meet some current trustees. Through the process we recruited two new trustees as it was felt having two new people join at the same time would help to ease them both into the role.

Developing trustees
Induction of trustees is just as important as recruitment. Meetings were set up with Hilden Charitable Fund’s Executive Director and the new trustees were encouraged to spend time in the office to get a feel for the day-to-day management of the organisation. An induction pack was also developed.

Family foundations can be challenging spaces to navigate at the best of times, therefore new trustees need to have the opportunity to participate in meetings so that they know what they are letting themselves in for. Our new trustees attended two meetings before their formal appointment and registration with the Charity Commission for England & Wales. Overall this approach has been successful for our organisation and enabled us to increase diversity meaningfully while addressing gaps on our existing board.

Three lessons
Every trust is different and what works for one may not work for another. That said, the three lessons learned from our experience can be applicable to most:

  • Broaden your recruitment pool.
  • Do a skills audit.
  • Conduct a thorough induction process.

One last point: enjoy the experience – recruiting new trustees can be fun!

I am excited to be a member of the ACF Stronger Foundations working group looking at diversity, equity and inclusion and to see what other principles might be identified through this work, particularly approaches facilitating greater beneficiary voices and involvement, other organisations’ experience of diversifying boards and how change happens. I am also interested to see how equity and inclusion as a cross-cutting theme will work with the other working groups to build the best – and most effective – foundation sector we possibly can.

Samia Khatun is a trustee of the Hilden Charitable Fund.

This article was first published in Trust & Foundation News, the membership magazine of the UK’s Association of Charitable Foundations.

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