Over the past year, Amanda Parker has been privy to several board-level conflicts that she describes as nightmarish. Boards, she advises, need to ensure democratic processes support equitable redress.
It’s almost become a knee-jerk reaction: when we talk about governance in the arts and cultural sector the conversation immediately switches to how we can diversify our boards. Because so long as the representation is there, the job is being done – right?
Wrong. There are many barriers to this voluntary role for highly skilled individuals, which are particularly felt by those from marginalised backgrounds. These barriers are resulting in a significant chasm between the aims of governance in the arts, and the results.
But what urgently needs our attention is not only who sits on boards, but what boards can actually do to progress anti-racist action. An organisation’s very survival can depend on what action a board takes, and there are serious fault lines in board structures and the tools of governance available.
The basics of board diversity
Firstly, let’s think about the basics of a diverse board. Where possible, the rule of three is a great rule of thumb. It's rare that anyone actually wants to be the ‘only one’ on the board. Everyone thrives in an environment where they can feel supported and understood. Irrespective of any protected characteristic, it can be uncomfortable to be treated as the unofficial voice for diverse audiences, artists, freelancers and contractors.
If your board contains only two people from an ethnically diverse background, you could inadvertently end up pitting two people against each other, where ideas are bounced between them. Variety of lived experience brings with it a variety of experience and perspective, which can be welcomed and celebrated. Having at least three members of your board who bring with them a variety of protected characteristics allows your board to begin to reflect and value variety and diversity of experience and thought.
For charities, board positions are largely unpaid. This is supposed to create a safety net for open and honest conversations because, as we all know too well, you’re less likely to speak openly if your income is in the hands of whoever is listening. However, the lack of financial remuneration for trustees can create serious barriers to open, democratic conversations.
Organisations mostly offer to cover travel and childcare, but this simply covers basic needs for people from marginalised backgrounds. Just think, if attending a committee meeting, or reading board papers, means having to turn down a vital shift, or even a half-day’s pay, then simply engaging with the role presents an immediate challenge to personal resources.
To address this, organisations can explore what conditions allow for board remuneration. Charities can make requests to the Charity Commission for remuneration for board members if it seems appropriate. Of course, there will and must be stringent and robust conditions to ensure there is no profit from a charity’s business.
Alternatively, you might form a consultancy group where board expertise is paid for when contributing to a specific area of work business. Or you could consider converting from a charity to a Community Interest Company where directors are allowed to be paid.
The balance between remuneration and equity is always hard to strike and even if you achieve it for current board members, you might find that those who have volunteered previously are seeing new trustees benefitting from their legacy.
Whose rights are they anyway?
Over the last year alone, Inc Arts has been involved with, and supported, a large number of incidents where racist harm has taken place, where the leadership had not understood the detailed needs for equity and justice. We have mediated for individuals having to navigate painful and extremely damaging circumstances, in which the organisation’s management has failed to understand the full impact and significance of racism on their board.
We’ve worked on incidents where equality and diversity have been continually pushed off the agenda despite interest from a diverse board, or where the phrase ‘All Lives Matter’ has been said, unchallenged, in board meetings.
Is it democratic for everyone to have equal weight on issues that not everyone has lived understanding of, or even respect for? What happens when everyone gets a vote but only some understand what they’re voting on? If a trustee is not motivated by inclusive action, but thinks this is ‘woke too far’, are they fulfilling their public service duties as set out in the Nolan Principles of objectivity, leadership and selflessness?
It’s crucial that COEs and Chairs work together with common purpose on equity and inclusion, but we’ve seen some organisations lose all their ethnically diverse trustees and allies because a CEO has fallen short of their ambitions for inclusive and positive action. A nightmare for all involved.
Behind the curtain
These examples all bear testament to the challenges and flaws within our sector, one that claims to ensure safe spaces for people with lived experience of racism. But when it comes to board management the dial is turned up. Trustees and boards often focus on reputation management above all else. Unfortunately, this all too often translates into closing down honest and frank dialogue to preserve the status quo and covering up ill and harm.
Perhaps it would suit us all better to think of the duty of every board member to encourage frank conversation that moves towards equity and inclusion. Supporting change means creating spaces that are welcoming and safe for all. Because reputation leaks out anyway, the only way to manage it is to truly foster it.
Amanda Parker is the Director and Founder of Inc Arts UK.
This article in one of a series from Inc Arts UK, a national collective that champions the creative, economic and contractual rights of the UK’s African diaspora, Asian diaspora and ethnically diverse workforce in the arts and cultural sector.
Inc Arts will be presenting a special session on anti-racism and boards engagement at the Governance Now conference on 18-19 November.