You’ve been doing an MA in charity management? Why did you decide to take the time out to do that?
“I stumbled into the charity sector 15 years ago after working in the public sector and have held various Director-level positions over the years, but most of what I did was by instinct and I wanted to develop a better understanding of the actual mechanics of the sector.
“My team were great. They gave me the time to do the MA. One of the things I most appreciated about the MA was the chance to meet with others in the same position, they were leading incredible charities that I wouldn’t ordinarily encounter and the opportunity to learn from one another was really special.”
In your dissertation you focused on participatory representation on boards. How did you get interested in that? Why is it important?
“There were various starting points to my interest in this. I read a the Getting on Board report (2017) that said almost 60% of charities don’t reflect the causes or communities they represent. Although I also know many charities in some sub-sectors particularly emphasise the importance of representation (e.g. RNIB changed their policy a few years ago so that now a majority of trustees have to be partially sighted or blind), I just wasn’t convinced that I could see that amongst international NGOs.
“I was also reading a lot about how charity boards are still seen as the domain of the older white man, usually from a particular socio-economic background, and asking myself: how can we better effect and reflect the people for whom we’re working at the highest possible level of leadership?
“There is, quite rightly, much conversation about diversity on boards, but I don’t hear much talk about participatory representation, even though, diversity is often an important, and somewhat obvious, by-product of participatory representation.
“My past experience of charity boards is that they have not been very good at considering participatory representation. As is often reported, charities have a tendency towards laziness in their recruitment of trustees – they just sit down and think about who they know.
“Later I got very interested in how you measure the impact of participatory representation. The dissertation considers the level to which participatory representation is evidenced amongst international NGOs and then looking at how you might measure its impact and benefits as well as the barriers to representation.
“The reality is that you can look at charities that have taken participatory representation seriously, and show that it makes the board more effective. An added benefit that we have seen at CSW is that it allows the charity to speak with a much more authentic voice.”
You’ve been studying Roland Burt. Who is he? What feature of his writing do you think is of particular interest to charity leaders today?
“Burt is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. I think he’s fascinating. It’s brilliant the way he can map out who knows who in an organisation and who is holding the most connections. It’s tempting to think that it’s the people in the middle with the most connections who are most valuable to an organisation. But Burt would suggest that it’s those at the edges of our teams, those who hold bridge connections into new areas that are the most valuable.”
What reading would you recommend for people who want to think about this more?
Two helpful articles are:
‘Structural Holes and Good Ideas’ – Ronald Burt
‘The Contingent Value of Social Capital’ – Ronald Burt
You’re mainly focussed on participatory representation in the international sector. Do the lessons apply equally to other sectors? What about the youth sector, for example?
“Yes – a youth charity could have a steering group of young people, for example. But often, older people need to take more seriously the importance of giving a leg up to younger people and, bluntly sometimes they just need to get out of those coming up behind them.”
“Although there is much evidence to show that participatory representation improves the effectiveness of charities, some research suggests there could be limits to this for some sectors. For example, housing associations might be encouraged not to have more than 30% of trustees who are also residents; warning that too much participatory representation could make the charity overly focused on existing work rather than what they need to do next, being focused on fixing the ‘now’ instead of reaching for what’s next.”