Diversity in governance – from good intentions to action and impact

A guest blog by Hilary Carty - Director, Clore Leadership

“All arts organisations and museums are beginning to programme more diverse work; ever stronger attempts are being made to widen the audiences to whom they are reaching out. It is essential that these factors are reflected at board level together with representation of the public the organisation serves.”[1]

– A Practical Guide to Governance | Cultural Governance Alliance

[1] Practical Guide to Governance 2017

We know that ‘diversity’ comes in a myriad of forms. It is the broadest spectrum of characteristics, perspectives and experience, and is intrinsically linked to it’s common vernacular cousins ‘equality’ and ‘inclusion’. By addressing the first, we hope to achieve the second and third. Framed positively and put simply, it is about recognising the “quality and value of difference”[1].

Expertise and skills. Experience and perspectives. Commitment and enthusiasm. Any board looking to recruit new trustees, or indeed a new chair, will be looking to satisfy these criteria. And putting diversity at the top of your recruitment agenda does not preclude you from doing so.  Indeed, organisations such as Derby QUAD have demonstrated the value and success of prioritising diversity alongside its search for key skills.  You can read more about their approach in trustee Marsha Ramroop’s article “The Challenges of Achieving and Retaining a Diverse Board”.

Since the creation of the Cultural Governance Alliance (CGA) in November 2018, its growing membership of leading cultural organisations and individuals has repeatedly raised diversity as a priority issue in the governance of culture, and increasingly, organisations are acknowledging that if we really want to transform and positively evolve our organisations, we must diversify our boards.

In working to highlight this and other pressing governance issues, the Cultural Governance Alliance aims to evolve the nature of the dialogue and support trustees and culture sector professionals to move from aspiration to action. For that to be achieved, it is important to grasp the challenges of achieving greater diversity in our cultural organisations; tackle the dominant (and often unconscious) state of mind and collective ‘group think’ in traditional power structures; and actively challenge the status quo.

But how?  Below are three steps you can take:

  1. Update the script
  2. Challenge the accepted
  3. Keep a steady course

Update the script

Promoting change works well when underpinned by an informed and critical engagement with the “language and lived experiences of inequality”[2].  Might those typically and traditionally in positions of power increase knowledge and self-awareness by checking for default perspectives and responses that relate to a time past and an outdated understanding of society, community, audiences or people?

  • Language is powerful. It also shifts over time. This can leave you feeling uncertain and disempowered, most guilefully disguised with sardonic humour or bluster.  But that humour ends up being at the expense of progress.  A high cost indeed.

An alternative approach might be to use that opportunity to update your script, engage in the debate and understand why and how the language of diversity has moved on.

  • Conversation is key. If you have identified a gap in representation on your board, take the time to reach out to professionals from those groups and use that engagement and those different perspectives to inform your thinking.

Quell the fear.  Make the first move. And the second.  Create the space to be comfortable with not knowing, for therein lies the opportunity for learning. In that space we can grapple with the pros and cons of tokenism, positive action, targets, quotas – and the rest – moving from uncertainty and frustration to active engagement over dialogue and over time.  It is a powerful demonstration of intent when the Chair or leader sets the example and creates the space for transparent and non-judgemental dialogue. Such is the inclusive and open culture that will  allow your board to thrive.
Challenge the accepted

What might active engagement look like?

  • Conduct a knowledge, skills and networks audit and search for diverse professionals to fill the gaps. It is a common fallacy to assume that particular expertise and skills are not present within traditionally underrepresented groups.  Unconscious or passive bias at play?
  • Research and reach out to groups and individuals who connect beyond your circle and into the networks you are trying to reach. Be proactive and tenacious – this will make a difference.
  • Review and refresh your recruitment process – might introducing elements such as informal conversations, shadowing, observers or a blind review process (wherein demographic identifiers are removed), help achieve your goals?
  • Join networks like the CGA and access peer to peer conversations with like-minded individuals, full of expertise and experience; and benefit from the range of resources such as the Practical Guide to Governance, to keep your thinking fresh and action purposeful.

The Board Meetings & Recruitment section of the Practical Guide to Governance provides guidance, tools and related resources to help guide you through.
Keep a steady course

In tackling all of the above, the speed of progress can be slow at different stages and for different priorities, so a firm intent, mixing long term strategies and short term actions is key. What might achieve a ‘quick win’?  What will need a persistent and tenacious endeavour?  Both are essential to achieve lasting impact.  A steady course that keeps long and short-term priorities in sight is more realistic than long statements, no matter how worthy.

If you would like to take action and share experiences and expertise with fellow trustees and professionals, join the Cultural Governance Alliance at Governance Now 2019 on 8th November – the flagship national conference for trustees and those working with trustees in the culture sector. And if you’re yet to become a member of the alliance and make the most of the resources on offer, you can do so here (Organisational Members receive a 10% discount code for Governance Now tickets).

A diverse and effective board is a living, breathing and constantly evolving entity. Take action today and keep yours moving forward.

Some further reading:

By Hilary Carty – Director, Clore Leadership

The Cultural Governance Alliance (CGA) is a light-touch collective of agencies, organisations and advocates working strategically to champion, share and promote best practice in the governance of culture. Explore www.culturalgovernancealliance.org and connect on Twitter @GovernCulture

[1] BFI Diversity Standards leaflet

[2] Diversity: A Critical Engagement

Updated on 04 january 2022

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