Seven people, four of whom are wearing yellow hi vis tops and white hard hats are standing under scaffolding at the deep end of an empty swimming pool. The interior of the building is tiled in white and dark green and the wall behind the people features twenty arches and decorative railing on the storey above the people.
Heritage at Risk 2018. Moseley Road Baths, Moseley Road, Balsall Heath, Birmingham, West Midlands. General view of the gala pool and the people involved in the project. © Historic England Archive. DP218858.
Heritage at Risk 2018. Moseley Road Baths, Moseley Road, Balsall Heath, Birmingham, West Midlands. General view of the gala pool and the people involved in the project. © Historic England Archive. DP218858.

Why Does Diversity Matter on Heritage Boards?

What is this resource for?

This resource aims to clarify the benefits for heritage organisations of having a diverse board.

Historic England is developing a suite of resources for heritage organisations of all sizes to develop the diversity of their board and build a more sustainable and resilient heritage sector for the future.

Diversity in heritage governance and leadership leads to more nuanced and informed discussions and decisions. It also leads to project work and programming that is inclusive, engaging, and accessible to more diverse audiences, as well as approaches to preservation, interpretation, and promotion of heritage that tell richer stories of multiple, complex histories.

This resource forms part of a wider strand of work around heritage board diversity. For other resources in this series, see the 'Inclusive governance boards and diverse trustees' section of the Inclusive Heritage Advice Hub.

What are the key points?

Diversity at board level can help organisations be resilient and sustainable, and make and implement informed and inclusive decisions

  • Conducting a board diversity audit helps to better understand your organisation’s needs and any existing barriers to diverse participation
  • Take time to review existing governance documents’ commitments to inclusion, diversity and equality (IDE) when making a case for a diverse board
  • Conduct a board diversity audit and evaluate the results to identify and strategise the next steps in recruiting future diverse board members
  • Demonstrate your board’s commitment to diversity by sharing authentically representative images and content on platforms and in annual reports

What is a 'diverse board'?

Diversity can come in many forms and may cover:

  • Professional background and career stage
  • Location of members (and if sessions are in-person or remote)
  • Nationality
  • Qualifications and work experience
  • Protected characteristics, including race and ethnicity, sexuality, gender, religion and belief
  • Lived experience of disability, chronic health conditions, or other illness
  • Neurodiversity
  • Caring responsibilities
  • Social class
  • Intersections of 1 or more of the above

Some of these may be visible and obvious; others may not be. Board members may choose not to disclose widely. A diversity audit should be conducted to establish the diversity of your board and to identify areas where there may be barriers to participation or where policy and procedure need to be developed to enable participation.

For more information, see our guidance on 'How Can We Conduct a Board Diversity Audit and Communicate Our Findings in Effective and GDPR Compliant Ways?'

Why does a diverse board matter?

There are some universal reasons to all organisations as to why diverse boards matter.

Inclusion, diversity, and equality (IDE) are fundamental to strategic and business planning. They ensure that an organisation's work reaches as wide an audience as possible, that recruitment is conducted inclusively to find the best candidates, and that an organisation is resilient to future challenges by developing based on a rich variety of lived experiences.

Diversity in leadership and governance means an organisation can embed IDE at all levels and develop a working culture of equity, inclusion and accessibility. This is beneficial for all, not only those with protected characteristics under the Equality Act.

Diversity at board level avoids groupthink or falling into patterns of “it has always been done this way”, which may feel safe and comfortable but is not a resilient approach to challenges and changes that are inevitable for all heritage organisations. A wealth of perspectives can evidence a need not previously recognised and identify changes (small or large) that can make an organisation sustainable and effective.

Some examples of this type of diversity benefit could include:

  • Board members with caring responsibilities raise awareness of needing different models for timings of meetings, the need for flexible working arrangements, and the impact on mental health. This could result in new working pattern policies and better employee support mechanisms such as access to Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), leading to better employee wellbeing and improved performance
  • Board members from the Global Majority (this term is now widely preferred over BAME and similar acronyms; see NCVO's explanation) raise awareness of unconscious bias and microaggressions, including ingrained societal expectations about people from specific racial and ethnic groups, and how it impacts their participation. This could result in staff-wide awareness training, the development of actively anti-racist policies and processes in direct consultation with global majority-led organisations, leading to better engagement with global majority communities, more partnership working opportunities, and better retention of Global Majority staff
  • Board members with invisible disabilities raise issues with the current accessibility information, which does not currently hold enough detail to allow visitors to be fully informed before visiting. This could result in the redevelopment of access guides and research into better accommodations on site, meaning barriers to visiting are removed and disabled visitor numbers increase, as well as improving access for staff and volunteers

There will also be individual cases to be made by each organisation and their board as to why diversity is important and what it should look like. It’s important for a board to tailor their case carefully so it can be evidenced and communicated effectively with staff, volunteers, and the public.

Some elements to consider when drafting a case for a diverse board may include:

  • Knowing who your current and potential audiences are or what your current reach is, and from this information, developing an understanding of which communities aren’t currently represented on your board
  • Have you conducted a diversity audit of your board and identified where potential barriers to participation exist?
  • What does your business plan, corporate plan, future strategy or other strategic document look like in terms of your IDE aspirations? Are these matched by the lived experience of your board members?
  • Are your policies and procedures informed by input from people with a diversity of lived experience?
  • Do you have succession planning in place for who leads on IDE on your board?
  • Do you rely on 1 individual with a specific identity, background, or lived experience to be responsible for IDE, or is this a shared and core responsibility for your board members?

What are the first steps to take?

1. Audit your board's diversity

The first step is to establish your board's current diversity. Remember, this may not be visible, and your board may be reluctant to disclose. It is important to establish an anonymised reporting mechanism and use the data only in ways set out in the accompanying introduction. Read our guidance on how to conduct an audit.

It can be initially challenging to conduct such an audit. Individuals may find being asked questions about their identity, lived experience, and background too personal or irrelevant to their role. It is important to raise the issue carefully and have a solid basis for your reasoning, as well as explanations of the individual questions.

2. Identify realistic targets and a strategy

It is important to be realistic in setting targets and not try to make fundamental and large-scale changes too rapidly. Doing so will result in a lack of buy-in and failure to enact meaningful change. Instead, work on a long term strategy that balances short, medium, and long term goals. Bringing in a new, diverse board without ensuring the organisational culture is ready and safe for them is equally counterproductive.

Auditing your board will also help identify some barriers, depending on who isn't represented. Take advice from specific organisations. For example, if you have no disabled board members, consult with disability advocacy groups to identify why this might be and feed your findings into your strategy.

A good first step is to audit policies. Look at the language used in them and compare them to other organisations that have already begun the work of diversifying their boards. Gradually updating policies and rolling out accompanying training and development opportunities is a good way to set a commitment to change while making sure staff are engaged and part of the process.

The next steps from this can include:

3. Be open and honest about the challenges

Doing authentic and impactful IDE work requires honesty about current practices, policies, procedures, and the current diversity of the board.

It is important to honestly evaluate risks and challenges to IDE work and find solutions to them. This can feel extremely challenging, as if the board is being singled out or blamed for its lack of diversity, or feel like a personal challenge to board members. It is important to hold honest but constructive conversations and to make it a process of development and acknowledgement, not blame. Make sure decisions are informed by evidence and data. Use the data from the (anonymised) diversity audit, from understanding current and potential audiences, and from existing reports on board diversity.

IDE can be an extremely emotive topic. Dedicate time to working on it instead of trying to fit it into an existing board meeting.

A board away day or additional meeting would offer the best place for conversations. Listening to and discussing the positions of others, potentially with very different perspectives and lived experiences, can lead to tensions if not skillfully chaired or if the board does not have experience in holding space for challenging conversations. Some preparatory training and work to develop these skills would benefit these conversations. Read our guide for holding space for challenging conversations.

4. Be visible

Where board members are happy to do so, an organisation should be demonstrative and visible in its diversity, sharing images and content on platforms including social media, websites, and in annual reports so that potential board members, staff, and the public can see the commitment to diversity at a glance.

It is important that this is not tokenistic. Any images should be taken from actual events or daily work rather than a staged photoshoot, for example.