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Supporting Scotland's vibrant voluntary sector

Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations is the membership organisation for Scotland's charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises. Charity registered in Scotland SC003558. Registered office Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh EH3 6BB.

Diversity on boards: What charities can do

I recently participated in a session for DataKirk’s AccelerateBLK initiative which made me think about the importance of having more Black voices on charity boards. 

Scotland’s a multi-cultural country and the boards of all organisations, whether they’re in the private, public or voluntary sector should reflect the communities they serve. At the moment, that isn’t the case. I am probably a classic example of a charity board member – I’m white, female, middle class and middle aged, with a university education.  Of course, there’s more to me than that and I bring all sorts of lived experience, but I don’t bring the experience of what it is to be Black in Scotland. 

One of the problems that often exists on boards is “group think” where everyone involved comes from a similar background, with similar experiences and a similar mindset. We might support different football teams or live in different places, but we have more in common than difference. That’s all very lovely and friendly, but it doesn’t make for creative thinking, generating new ideas and ways of working or inclusive communication. It perpetuates traditional systems and approaches. 

Too many organisations keep on doing the same things in the same way for a long time and expect the people and communities they’re working with to fit in. We need to hear different voices and tap into new expertise to flourish. We need to be challenged, to reflect and to change, if our organisations are to be relevant and accessible to all.  

At SCVO, we benefitted from having Manish Joshi as a trustee. He worked closely with staff to kick off our anti-racism work. Losing him from the board means we have lost that unique perspective and when elections open in the summer, I hope that people from ethnic minority communities will put themselves forward. 

There is help out there on How to Diversify Your Charity’s Board and there are many benefits to the organisation: 

  • Evidence shows that organisations with more diverse boards are more productive and successful. 
  • Services, activities and campaigning are more reflective of today’s reality 
  • You attract skills, expertise and qualities that you can’t find if you’re recruiting from the same old pools. 

And there are benefits to the people who join boards: 

  • It’s a great way to use your skills, knowledge and expertise to do good 
  • It’s a good way to meet new people, and learn new things that will interest you and be helpful in applying for jobs, for college or university, or for developing your career 

Research tells us that even now, most charities and community organisations rely on what’s known as the “tap on the shoulder” to find people to join their boards. Sometimes that’s how you do find people you might not find through other routes, but more often it’s another well-intentioned person just like everyone else on the board. 

So open recruitment processes are a good place to start. Advertise widely – for example on our jobs site Goodmoves, on social media, even in the local paper. Or in places where you know lots of people hang out – that could be a community centre, or it could be FaceBook.  

But you need to be more targeted and deliberate too. If you want to attract young people, target schools and colleges, and use the platforms they use, like TikTok. If you want to attract Black people, say so and go to organisations like DataKirk or Radiant and Brighter and ask for help. Don’t expect people to come to you, you need to go to them.  And be open about what you’re looking for and why. One of the things that’s become clear to me in SCVO’s work with Viana Maya from pRespect is that too often we’re scared to say out loud that we’re looking to attract Black people, or any other under-represented group, because we’re worried we’ll offend people or say the wrong thing. We need to get over that and be honest. 

In doing that we also need to be honest in our motivation. We can’t be simply ticking a box, we must genuinely believe that having Black voices in the room will enhance our organisations and that we have something to offer that’s more than tokenism. Box-ticking doesn’t help anyone. 

So what skills are boards looking for? It depends on the organisation and who else is on the board.  

Boards should do a skills audit, or better still a diversity audit, where they look at what they’ve got already and identify gaps. For example, do they need someone who knows about money, like an accountant or someone who runs their own business? Or someone with experience of what the charity is all about, like someone with mental health problems or who’s been in prison or been homeless – or someone who plays football! 

Perhaps they need someone who can help them change from what they’ve been doing for a long time to something new, someone to bring a positive atmosphere to meetings, or someone able to challenge the staff constructively and to ask good questions.  

The main thing you need is enthusiasm, time and a belief in what the organisation does. You can learn everything else – we’ve all had to learn how to read a spreadsheet or understand a risk register. 

If you’re on the board of a charity or a community group, you won’t be paid for your time. But you will be paid expenses so should never be out of pocket. I’m hopeful that very soon, our boards will be more diverse and therefore stronger. 

Last modified on 6 July 2023