Foundation trustee boards: the Good, the Bad and the Data

Why is this an issue?

The foundation sector is increasingly grappling with issues of equity, diversity and inclusion, not least in order to drive better decision making, interrogate legitimacy and work intentionally within and beyond existing structures of power.

This is no more evident than in ACF’s recently launched Stronger Foundations initiative. 

The initiative’s first working group was focused on these very topics and drew an overwhelming level of interest and engagement from across the grant-making community.

There is little doubt that the sector has some distance to travel, and that the journey will require self-examination, collaboration and a willingness to look both critically at our practice and creatively toward meaningful solutions.

Given the legal and governance role played by trustees, and the fact that the majority of foundations have few or no paid staff, how such issues play out at board level is clearly of crucial importance to the conversation. 

Because of this, it is perhaps not surprising that ACF has received requests from a number of our members for us to run a survey on the make-up of foundation trustee boards. Rather than carrying out this research on our own members, we have instead sought to draw on the most statistically robust and representative data currently available. 

Using data from the Charity Commission for England and Wales, and carried out by The Centre for Charity Effectiveness at CASS Business School, the resulting report provides a number of talking points and moves the discussion on to a more evidence-based footing.

The findings are limited by the availability of sector-level raw data, and therefore might not tell us all that we want or need to know. However, there is still plenty to get our teeth into.

The full report can be read here, but here are five headline findings:

What do we know?

Male trustees outnumber women 2:1

While this broadly mirrors the make-up of trustees within the wider charity sector, it still makes for deeply uncomfortable reading. 

It is a statistic that raises a number of difficult questions, especially in a sector that has a predominantly female workforce (66%). 

Issues to consider include, but are not limited to; recruitment methods (see below), flexibility of volunteering patterns, produced and re-produced notions of what expertise and leadership ‘looks like’ and the society-wide underrepresentation of women in senior executive roles.

Foundation boards are 99% white

This statistic compares to 92% in the wider charity sector. The preponderance of family-only boards may account for some of the variance, but nonetheless, this is sobering – the needle clearly needs to move.

While there is a growing recognition amongst foundations – both in theory and in practice – of the organisational and societal benefits of having boards that more accurately reflect the society in which they work, it is simply not visible in the data at present.

Almost 60% of foundation trustees are over 65

This is some 10% higher than the wider charity sector, and once again may be a function of particular kinds of governance requirements, especially in family foundations.

However, with only 3% of foundation trustees under 45, there are considerations regarding uniformity of perspective and the long term health of the sector from a governance point of view.

Almost three quarters of foundation trustees are recruited informally

In some ways this may seem unsurprising. With the vast majority of foundations operating at a small, entirely voluntary scale, formal recruitment and advertising processes may not rank particularly highly amongst other pressing priorities. Instead, boards are likely to draw on proximate networks and local expertise.

That said, to do so unthinkingly risks perpetuating a climate in which boards are unrepresentative and under-exposed to the views, expertise and experience of other constituencies.

Foundation boards are smaller, the terms are longer and they meet less frequently

20% of foundation boards have three or fewer members, while 72% have seven or under and 46% meet either once or twice a year. More than 70% of respondents to a question on board tenure had sat on the same board for five or more years.

A fair amount of the variance will again be down to governance requirements and procedural concerns such as the rhythm of grant decision cycles or family members and living donors sitting on boards.

But it is certainly worth asking what these particular characteristics mean when it comes to promoting board diversity. For example, if a board is small and there is little churn in personnel, does it put an avoidable limitation on recruitment practices?

What are the next steps?

The picture painted by the data is not pretty.

Bluntly put, it shows a part of the sector that it is disproportionately homogenous in terms of race, gender and age, and arguably non-optimal in terms of structure and recruitment practices.

There are stories behind the data, of course. For example, if we analyse the responses related only to behaviour and attitudes, we see a highly-motivated, highly-skilled group of volunteer trustees with a deep passion for the aims of the organisation they serve.

But in sum, the data tells us what the sector already knew … we can and must do better.

What that looks like may vary dramatically from foundation to foundation, and there will be specific considerations in-line with charitable mission, governance structures and organisational priorities.

The response to the launch of ACF’s Stronger Foundations initiative represents a significant silver lining. In its early stages now, it will eventually provide a sector-led framework for working and thinking through these and many other issues. 

The level of engagement and enthusiasm indicates a deep and growing willingness to tackle questions head-on, hear challenge, examine practice and work towards solutions that will improve the both the sector, and crucially, those it exists to support.


Keiran Goddard
Director of External Affairs, ACF

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