Trustees with lived experience of the cause on charity boards can add insights, increase collective understanding and stimulate thinking, ensuring richer discussion and more sophisticated solutions.

Benefits of lived experience on nonprofit boards

There is no better way of representing the many diverse benefits of having trustees with lived experience of the cause on charity boards, than to showcase the breadth of views and insights from the individuals and organisations who helped shape this CCE knowledge exchange, through our November 2020 Lived Experience seminar.  Participants identified three main, interlinked drivers that reinforce the benefits of having trustees with lived experience on boards, and each of these drivers is explored below, in their own words.

Seminar insights: three drivers

To role model the future we’d all like to see

  • Our boards must be close to the needs and challenges we're trying to tackle. There is a ‘them and us’ in many charities. This can often be experienced as paternalistic - certainly when many trustees are older in age, often retired and far from the world lived by the beneficiary.
  • It’s a bit of a ‘no brainer’ - how are you supposed to create positive change in a community when you have no one from that community on a board? The insight of someone with lived experience is fundamental to meeting your charitable objectives.
  • Boards, like any high performing teams, need a variety of attitudes, personalities and characters in order to avoid group think and encourage positive exploration. It is more about the right mix of characters and personalities than it is about their past experience.
  • Given the opportunity, and with the right culture in place within the board, people with lived experience tend to speak more directly than others, and in a way that grounds a charity in the varied lives of those it exists to serve.
  • Credibility, legitimacy, efficiency, effectiveness, equity enabling authentic representation and a better understanding of the issues being tackled.
  • A board that is as grounded as possible within the realities of people’s lives will do a better job of serving people and, as momentum grows, more and more boards will see the benefits and make the changes required within their governance systems and structures.

To improve the quality of evidence based decision making: richness, reality, insight

  • Our boards must be close to the needs and challenges we're trying to tackle.
  • It's about standing in the shoes and then offering that experience to bring richness and reality to board discussions.
  • Adds a perspective that will enable better decision making and organisations to reflect the community they hope to serve.
  • Sharing power, more representation and understanding of issues - better, more informed decisions.
  • A range of ways for boards to hear from people with lived experience is helpful, so that people with lived experience of the cause can inform governance through different methods that best suit them. One size should not fit all!
  • It provides people with lived experience with expanded choices to become involved and to shape organisations and systems – the potential for mutuality – benefitting both parties.

To develop all trustees, including those with lived experience of the cause, and those with other experiences

  • Giving people an authentic voice, decision making responsibilities and an opportunity to learn, grow and develop.
  • Service user leadership is a central ethos of the way we work across the organisation, and trustees on our board reflect the importance of that leadership requirement – it also means that the people we work alongside in our services may be inspired by seeing those with lived experience on boards.
  • Some people with lived experience may not get the opportunity to enter the board of an organisation without prior experience of governance, and may be seen as less ‘desirable’ – joining a board that is interested in and values their lived experience provides amazing opportunities for people to develop their knowledge and experience of governance that can be applied elsewhere in future.

CCE perspectives

How do we articulate the benefits?

Scott E Page in his book The Diversity Bonus makes the case for diversity (not lived experience, but the thinking can be extrapolated). Not only are diversity, equity and inclusion the right thing to do, but there is a bonus: when diverse teams work on complex tasks, they outperform homogenous teams. Excellence requires diversity, there is a logic to it, and you can make the bonus tangible.

Getting better decisions

In creating this online resource , a big driver for CCE has been the improvements that lived experience of the cause on charity boards can bring to the quality of evidence based decision making.  In our extensive experience of carrying out governance reviews, we see a lot of homogenous groups, including boards that actively seek to recruit new trustees who share the same beliefs and experiences, and who will ‘fit’ the culture and play well with the team.

Homogenous groups just don’t make as good a decision as those with cognitive diversity. In many boards, there is a knowledge gap: direct experience of the cause or issue – what it feels like. Bringing in trustees with lived experience of the charity's cause can not only add insights that will fill gaps in collective understanding but, if these trustees are enabled to voice their insights, will stimulate divergent thinking, leading to richer, more informed discussions, and thus more sophisticated, evidence based solutions.

In this RSA Short video, Matthew Syed discusses 'the power of cognitive diversity' in opening up thinking and improving decision-making.

Matthew Syed also here in ‘Rebel Ideas’, and Charlan Nemeth in ‘In Defence of Troublemakers’ each discuss the perils of groupthink and collective blindness.

Here’s a summary, blending their ideas into an argument for adding the richness of lived experience into the mix:

Group decisions

  • Groups of individuals make better decisions than one (no one person can have the breadth of insight required):
  • Group decision making works best when:
    • Each individual in the group reaches their judgement independently.
    • All the evidence, information and insights are shared.
    • You have all the perspectives relevant to the topic (including lived experience of the cause).
    • There is cognitive diversity (different background and life experiences, different thinking styles and views of the world, different frames of reference and mental models).

Some things to watch out for

  • Groups (however diverse they are to start with) have a tendency to become more similar over time and gravitate towards shared blind spots.
  • A dominant leader (eg. a Chair who always gives their view before opening the discussion up to the rest of the board) can suppress different views.
  • People find it hard to disagree and tend to avoid conflict.
  • We all come with unconscious biases that affect how we look at the world and contribute to dialogue and debate. Take a look at Pragya Agarwal’s video introducing her book ‘Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias’.

Case studies

These case studies focus on the positive experiences of becoming a trustee on a nonprofit board and the benefits of having a diverse board.

Adam Antonio of The Advocacy Project, on service user board members

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Alternatively, you can watch it on YouTube.

Reaping the rewards of a diverse board at The Advocacy Project

In her 2017 blog, Kate Ferguson, former Chair of The Advocacy Project describes the rewards of a diverse board. She outlines some of the ways that the required commitment and support has been provided, and the positive impact that a having a diverse board has had on the organisation.

‘They made me so welcome’ - Cyle Carth’s personal experience of becoming a trustee with lived experience

Cyle CarthCyle Carth, founder of Good Guys Decorating, would meet trustees of Carney’s Community occasionally at the annual Christmas party but never gave a thought to becoming a board member himself. When he was invited to become a trustee in early 2020, he still had no idea what the role was all about.

Carney's Community was co-founded in 2011 by George Turner. The organisation’s mission is to get disadvantaged and excluded young people off the street and away from a life of crime and despair by giving them skills, discipline, and self-respect. Cyle Carth was 11 years old and part of a youth offending programme that aimed to keep young people out of prison when he met George Turner, before ‘Carney’s Community’ even existed.

After George established Carney’s he stayed in contact with Cyle, who describes himself as “a walking, talking example of what Carney’s is all about”. Cyle set up his own business and went from being, in his own words, “the worst offender in Wandsworth!” to receiving a civic award as a community champion of the borough in 2019.

Carney's Community logo 'Helping people to "be the best they can be" Mick Carney MBA (1935 - 2011)"

Cyle says that what made a real difference to his experience of joining the Carney’s Community board was his first board meeting, when all the trustees went round the room welcoming him, saying how much they valued Cyle joining the board, and how much his opinion and contribution would mean.

From the start, Cyle noticed how well the board listens to each other, and how everyone’s voice is important. He says that there’s a “family energy” throughout the organisation which extends to the board. Everyone is there to make a difference and achieve the right thing for Carney’s. Whilst Cyle brings direct lived experience into the boardroom, his role is treated just the same as all the other trustees.

One of the other Carney’s Community trustees offered an example to illustrate how Cyle’s contribution has made a valuable and practical difference to the board. When the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement emerged in 2020 the board, who were predominantly white and middle class, was discussing how to respond and whether they should produce a formal statement outlining their position.

Cyle suggested that Carney’s already represented the aims of the BLM movement and that it didn’t need to jump in with an overly formalised response but should let it evolve naturally. His fellow trustee commented that Cyle’s suggested approach “reined us in a bit” and helped the board set the appropriate nature and tone of their response.

'My one chance': why including lived experience is so important - Dena Pursell at Groundswell

"I have something to offer, insight not everyone can claim to, and I now have a voice".

In this powerful account, Dena Pursell shares her story about why including lived experience in governance is so important.  Dena attended a Beyond Suffrage trustee training programme and is a volunteer with Groundswell.

Being a trustee - why it's something you should consider, by young trustee Olivia Bee

In this interesting article for Medium, Olivia Bee, a 'young trustee' for Plan International UK, sets out exactly why she loves being a trustee.

Useful links

Moral, economic and social imperatives

Baljeet Sandhu discusses the moral, economic and social imperatives of lived experience leadership in her report The Value of Lived Experience in Social Change (2019), based on research carried out as part of her Clore Social Leadership Fellowship. The report is a call to action for all of us. She defines Lived Experience Leadership, discusses its value, the system change we need to overcome the challenges, and the pressing need for leadership development.

Young Trustees Movement

The Young Trustees Movement champions the importance of having the perspectives of young people on charity boards. They are clear about the benefits, not just to the charity, but also for the young person, their employer and wider society. In this blog they explore how to articulate the benefits. And see a checklist ‘Getting Young People onto your Board’ offered by iwill who believe that young people should have the power to shape and address the issues that affect their lives and the future of the country.

Importance of beneficiary representation

This Civil Society article Seven Secrets of what makes an Award Winning Charity includes Charity Awards winner Who Cares? Scotland describing the importance of beneficiary representation running right through the organisation.

'Imagining and sympathising are not the same as lived experience' (Debra Allcock Tyler)

In this article published in 'Third Sector' (2021), Debra Allcock Tyler discusses her personal experience of realising the importance and value of lived experience.

'I have a view worth hearing, but I might be missing something'

A really interesting article from Roger Martin, on diversity in strategy development, published in Medium (August 2021).

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