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A diverse board can be of great benefit to an organisation. Charlotte Jones highlights the importance of having board members from different backgrounds.

a woman seated speaking to a man in a wheelchair at a seminar
Luke Hamil, GAIN Participant and Julia Potts, Chair of Magpie Dance at GAIN training event Southbank Centre

Mario Yanez

There has been much debate in the past few years about the governance structure of arts and cultural organisations – questioning the relevance of charitable status and examining the pros and cons of the volunteer board. I would suggest, perhaps controversially, that the charitable company structure is still relevant and sufficiently flexible for arts organisations, and that it may be particularly useful in the current climate with the Government’s emphasis on philanthropy and the need to seek funds from a wider range of supporters. Furthermore, a board of committed volunteers can be a huge asset to an organisation.

The key question is how to make that board as high-functioning, involved, engaged and relevantly skilled as possible. In answering that question it may be helpful to focus first on a few of the pitfalls and mistakes in board formation:

Do not:

  • Seek Board members only from amongst the ‘great and the good’ – fame and fancy titles do not guarantee commitment and skill
  • Build your board on the USA’s ‘Give, Get or Get off’ model, expecting them to be primarily a source of money
  • Appoint your friends
  • Assume that you need a lawyer, an accountant and a banker
  • Let people stay on the board for ever
  • ‘Parachute’ someone in to tick a ‘diversity’ box.

Here are a few things an organisation could consider to strengthen its board:

  • Carry out a board skills audit and act on it – either to use more effectively the human resources already on the board or to identify and fill the gaps
  • Expect a high level of engagement and involvement from board members – use people’s skills and play to their strengths
  • Communicate well with board members. Provide good, accessible information in time for them to digest it and create a space for constructive and meaningful discussion
  • Train and develop board members (recognising the professional development value of board membership and making it work for both the individuals and the organisation)
  • Develop systems for recruitment, induction, development and retirement of board members
  • Look beyond the ‘usual suspects’. Embrace diversity and actively seek new people to challenge and support the organisation.

For the past five years, the Independent Theatre Council (ITC) has been supporting organisations and individuals in the cultural sector with our governance development programme, GAIN. The first ITC GAIN was designed as a positive action programme to address the under representation of Black, Asian and minority Ethnic (BAME) people on arts boards. Many of the participating organisations involved in the BAME GAIN programme were equally keen to encourage more disabled people onto their boards. In response to this, ITC ran a pilot programme for disabled participants.

What ITC (and its partners) has learnt from running the GAIN programme is that, where governance is concerned, the structure is not the be all and end all, it’s the people that count. The more diverse and well facilitated that group of people is the more they can achieve. Arts organisations need to be outward looking and engaged with the communities they serve. Their boards can be invaluable in helping them achieve this.

The next GAIN programme (which will be launched in the spring) is designed to broaden participation even further, recognising that a wide range of people might have skills and experience to offer the sector but have either encountered barriers or not yet identified the opportunity. People new to arts boards will be offered training, mentoring, peer-learning and the opportunity to join the board of a participating organisation. Organisations will also receive board development training enabling them to make the best use of new people on their boards to reinvigorate their businesses. These are challenging times for the arts – we need all the help we can get.

Jules Campbell, Trustee of the Crafts Council

GAIN offered a unique perspective on board participation, and real opportunities for placement amongst many of the UK’s creative and cultural bodies. Through the use of experienced professional trainers and structured creative workshops, the GAIN programme fostered an environment based on peer learning, critical analysis and core reading. Since participating I have joined the Board of Trustees of the Crafts Council. The programme enabled me to understand the value of my corporate commercial skills in a board context and contribute to the strategic development and international reach of the Crafts Council. In turn, I have gained an invaluable opportunity for personal development and the chance to contribute toward the ongoing success of the UK’s creative and cultural sector through challenging economic conditions.


Stephen Reid, Chair of Attitude is Everything

In early 2009, my mentor at Leonard Cheshire told me about the GAIN programme and encouraged me to apply. Having owned nightclubs and promoted raves for the past 16 years I was worried that I would not fit in – I had never heard of Gain or the ITC, and the term “third sector” meant nothing to me! I am now Chair of Attitude is Everything, a charity that aims to improve Deaf and disabled people’s access to live music. There needs to be diversity in boards – and not just in the public sector. Organisations ought to reflect the communities they serve – communities that are now diverse in an ever-increasing number of ways (gender, age, sex, race, location and creed, to name but a few). All sectors need to earn the trust of these communities in order to succeed.

The GAIN programme is not a well-meaning bit of tokenism, something that I, as a disabled person, would never want. The programme, and my subsequent experiences, proved to me the value that a diverse mix can bring to a board (or indeed any situation). I found the whole experience very rewarding and was so motivated that I was able to join a board fairly quickly. All the sessions had first-rate tutors and took place in some great locations.


Charlotte Jones is Chief Executive of the Independent Theatre Council.

This week Charlotte watched an inspiring orchestra of young people perform Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in Croydon conducted by Peter Stark. She is looking forward to Sydenham Schools’s Spring concert on Wednesday, and is still reflecting on the Lyric’s ‘Mogadishu’ from last week – haunting and brilliant!

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Image of Charlotte Jones