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Our sector is supported by trustees and directors who, through their passion and skills, have stepped up to support organisations when the need has been greatest. But, as Jonathan Mayes argues, our boards could do better.

“The world is turned upside-down” – a line from the musical Hamilton, as true in the early 21st century as it was in the late 18th century.  We all recognise the speed of change brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, by social causes such as #BlackLivesMatter and #WeShallNotBeRemoved, by climate change. 

Many boards have shown resilience and fortitude as they have had to meet more regularly, make decisions more quickly and adapt to new risks more rapidly. It has been hugely edifying to witness this in action. Might more organisations have been better equipped to navigate our current upside-down world? The answer is squarely “yes”.  

The need to improve governance was highlighted in the 2017 Clore report Achieving Good Governance by Hilary S Carty, David Bryan, and Anne Murch: “Boards are responding to an unprecedented climate of volatility, speed and uncertainty, compounded by decreases in public funding … Despite the significant number and range of development opportunities available, board members say they have limited time/desire to engage in these.”

The increased focus on good governance from funders – particularly ACE – is also welcome.  Developing governance practice is as a key priority in ACE’s Let’s Create delivery plan. Our sector is increasingly going to be measured not just on the quality of its management, but also on the quality of its governance practice too. 

Strategic interest in improving governance

Developing the quality of governance was the basis for the creation of the Cultural Governance Alliance, a partnership of organisations all with a strategic interest in improving governance and whose role is to provide and signpost governance development opportunities. The Alliance collectively works on many initiatives, with the largest of these being the annual Governance Now conference

Now in its fourth year, the conference is a place for trustees and executives to come together. It provides a rare opportunity for board-level discussions which extend beyond the needs and priorities of an individual organisation.

What are the trends and requirements of the sector? What issues are on the horizon which boards need to have on their radar? What might we learn from sharing our successes and challenges in a safe and supportive environment?  These are the questions that drive the CGA and the Governance Now conference. 

This year is no different, as we look in detail at three specific elements all connected to board diversity: Sustainability and Climate Emergency; Ableism and Disability; and Race and Decolonisation.  We’ll hear from a range of wonderful and passionate speakers and, critically, give time for discussion and networking that enables delegates to move from the theoretical to the practical. How do these issues relate to my organisation and how can I/we make the changes necessary to progress?

More than 1.25 million trustees 

So, what does progress look like? A 2020 Nesta report identified 208,057 active charities in England and Wales. A conservative estimated average of six trustees per organisation would imply there are at least 1.25 million trustee positions out there. Meanwhile, the government’s own review of charity trustees gives a total of 700,000 active trustees .That means some, possibly lots of, people are sitting on more than one board.  

Now, that wouldn’t matter so much if we already had a full representation of our society on those boards, but we don’t. 92% of trustees are white. Fewer than 3% of trustees are under 30. We don’t even have a reliable statistic for the numbers of disabled trustees, indicating a huge challenge on that front too.

Desperate need for a wider variety of voices

The diversification of boards has roots further back than you might imagine. In the 1940s board diversity was all about moving beyond purely the ‘great and the good’ and, particularly, bringing in those with expertise in law and finance, to help guide decision-making. 

That evolution marked progress for arts and cultural organisations – they were bringing new voices to the table. And that’s exactly what is required now. I’m not suggesting that the term ‘diversity’ was common currency then, nor that the progress of 75 years ago is especially informative of the progress we require now.

Rather, that our organisations desperately need a wider variety of voices at their board tables. It’s not just a morally worthwhile ambition – it’s a necessity for good business practice. In setting the strategic direction of an organisation the board should be taking into account as many perspectives as possible on how best to serve its charitable purpose.  

Only scratching the surface 

As a sector, our boards are not nearly diverse enough and the Charity Commission’s review makes it clear that this is an issue of recruitment which “is characterised as predominantly informal in nature, which is likely to constrain outside influence and engagement and to be self-replicating in outcome in both demographics and skills”.

If you think this has nothing to do with you – it does. More people need to be trustees and we collectively need to share trustee opportunities across a wider array of networks. It isn’t easy. At Clore Leadership, we worked with Coventry City of Culture on board recruitment and it took a lot of leg-work and lots of careful thought as to who and how the opportunity might be usefully shared – and not just shared, but actively promoted and sold.  

The success in Coventry wasn’t an accident. It came through a real effort to make change. We’ve seen it in action elsewhere too, but the statistics show that, as a sector, we’re only scratching the surface. Every organisation needs to be doing this. And it is also a challenge for all of us individually. How are you contributing to the evolution and progression of governance? 

Jonathan Mayes is Head of Strategic Partnerships & Impact at Clore Leadership. 

@GovernCulture | @cloreleadership

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