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The diversity deficit in our charity boards

17 February 2021 at 6:10 pm
Maggie Coggan
“Too often members of charity boards are not from the communities the charities aim to support,” charity leader says. 

Maggie Coggan | 17 February 2021 at 6:10 pm


The diversity deficit in our charity boards
17 February 2021 at 6:10 pm

“Too often members of charity boards are not from the communities the charities aim to support,” charity leader says. 

Canadian charity boards are facing an extreme diversity deficit, new research shows, with the findings sparking discussions around the makeup of charity boards back on home shores. 

The Statistics Canada survey found that while the majority of board members were women (59 per cent) of a median age of 50 to 54 years, all other minority groups were vastly underrepresented. 

Just 14 per cent of survey respondents identified themselves as immigrants; 11 per cent identified as belonging to a visible minority group; eight per cent as LGBTQI+; six per cent as persons with a disability; and three per cent as First Nations, Métis or Inuit.

Australian charities struggle with similar problems 

A 2019 Institute of Community Directors Australia (ICDA) study of Australian not-for-profit boards found that in contrast to the corporate sector, where boards are often said to be “male, pale, and stale”, NFP boards could be described as “female, pale and stale(ish)”.

The study found that similar to Canada, most NFP boards have achieved a gender balance, with 78 per cent of respondents reporting that their board had at least 40 per cent women.  

But, only 17 per cent of respondents said their board included at least one person younger than 25 years old; only 15 per cent said their boards included at least one Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person; only 17 per cent said their board included at least one person who identified as LGBTQI+; and only 28 per cent said their board had at least one member with a disability.

Boards also seem to be lacking ethnic diversity, with fewer than half of the respondents (43 per cent) saying their board had at least one member from a culturally and linguistically diverse community. 

That’s despite the fact that the Australian Bureau of Statistics has found that 45 per cent of Australians were born overseas, or have a parent who was born overseas.

Neha Madhok, the national director of Democracy in Colour, said that the lack of diversity in charity boards had severe consequences. 

“Too often members of charity boards are not from the communities the charities aim to support and so many have no lived understanding of the issues they’re making decisions on,” Madhok told Pro Bono News. 

“This is a problem because they end up suggesting solutions to problems that are not appropriate, and sometimes even harmful, for marginalised communities that they have limited understanding of.”

Kathy Richardson, executive director of ICDA, told Pro Bono News that the matter of diversity on boards required a lot of nuance, and was not as easy as coming up with a list of characteristics and “ticking down the boxes”. 

“I think most people by now agree that boards should be more diverse, and it’s easy to quickly identify a non-diverse board, but what does a ‘diverse’ board look like?” Richardson said. 

“There’s no easy fix, you have to do the work.”

A written policy makes a difference, but it depends on who’s writing it 

The Canadian survey is the first step in improving diversity. 

Participants of the Canadian study were asked whether their organisation had a written policy on the diversity of its board of directors. Just over 30 per cent of participants said their organisations did have such a policy, while 47 per cent said they did not. 

Interestingly, board members in organisations with a diversity policy were more likely to report being members of diverse groups than those in organisations without a written diversity policy.   

Madhok said that generally where leaders have set goals and aims on prioritising diversity, they are more likely to achieve it. 

But, she said that it was important that these policies and strategies actually centred the voices and expertise of people with lived experience.  

“The people best placed to make strategic decisions about issues that impact marginalised communities, are people from the community themselves,” Madhok said. 

Richardson added that it was important for everyone serving on a charity board to “take a step back” and consider whether it is at least roughly representative of the community it seeks to serve.

“We hope this will help kickstart a conversation on each board about what ‘diverse’ might look like for that particular board, and (if needed) how they might map a path towards greater diversity,” she said. 


If you’re interested in learning more about diversity in boards, ICDA has some help sheets available on their website here.  

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.


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