Charities must do more to ensure boards “reflect the communities they serve”, the charity watchdog has warned, after a report found the vast majority of trustees are white.
The Charity Commission urged charities to encourage applications from women, young people, and ethnic minorities, presenting research which revealed that 92 per cent of trustees are white and more than half are retired.
“There is a danger that charity trustee boards might become myopic in their views,” said the report, which was commissioned by the Office for Civil Society and the Charity Commission.
According to the survey of 3,500 trustees in England and Wales, men outnumber women by two to one on charities’ boards, with the average age between 55 and 64.
“Trustees make a vital contribution to our society and communities up and down the country rely on their voluntary efforts,” said Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission.
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But she warned charities must take action to “promote diverse trusteeship”, stating: “Trustees do not reflect the communities charities serve.
“Charities are therefore at risk of missing out on the widest range of skills, experience and perspective at board level,” she added, claiming that the underrepresentation of certain demographics “also puts charities at risk by creating a culture of ‘group think’ where decision making can go unchallenged.”
In a piece analysing the report, Civil Society Media editor David Ainsworth remarked that while “at first glance, it looks self-evidently true that diversity is a huge problem for charity boards”, the issue is more complex.
“It is not necessarily the case” that the boards of small voluntary bodies in England and Wales are particularly unrepresentative, he argued, pointing out that a large number of such organisations are “overwhelmingly used by older people — who are also much whiter than the general population”.
As a result, Mr. Ainsworth said it is “hard to level any criticism at these bodies”, asserting that their boards consist of “people who are willing to do the job” and that trustees “are giving up substantial time for relatively little reward, in order to provide a service for their peers”.
“Given the difficulties of social disengagement faced by many elderly white men, perhaps – rather than complaining – we should be celebrating that they are finding something meaningful and making a strong contribution,” he added.
Contending that “it’s easy to measure age, gender and so on”, the Civil Society Media editor also suggested that “the real benefit of diversity” to organisations “comes from getting different viewpoints around the table”.
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While it is increasingly common for organisations to extol supposed benefits of ethnic and gender diversity, Alison Reynolds and David Lewis concluded after more than a decade’s research that it is cognitive — not identity-based — diversity that improves a team’s performance.
“Received wisdom is that the more diverse the teams in terms of age, ethnicity, and gender, the more creative and productive they are likely to be,” wrote the pair in a piece for Harvard Business Review earlier this year.
“But having run the execution exercise around the world more than 100 times over the last 12 years, we have found no correlation between this type of diversity and performance.”
Explaining that cognitive diversity “has been defined as differences in perspective or information processing styles”, Reynolds and Lewis said their research showed “significant correlation between high cognitive diversity and high performance”.
But cognitive diversity, they found, “is not predicted by factors such as gender, ethnicity, or age”.