Six people sit around a circular table whihc has scattered papers, pens and bottled water on it. The people are either leaning in, smiling at each other, folding their arms are gesticulating as though they are talking to the group.
Outreach to Ownership. © Scottish Council on Archives
Outreach to Ownership. © Scottish Council on Archives

How Do We Affect Culture Change in Our Organisation so a Diverse Board Is Welcome and Effective?

What is this resource for?

This resource aims to help heritage organisations understand how culture change can be used to ensure a diverse board can govern effectively.

Recruiting diverse boards is only one step in developing an organisation's IDE approach; a culture where they can flourish is essential to retaining them and ensuring constructive work with the existing board and wider organisation.

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?

  • Culture change is any shift in behaviour, expectations, or ethos within an organisation that affects the way it carries out its operations
  • When approaching conversations about culture change, be sure to be reflective and accountable for any past behaviours or processes
  • Encourage open and honest dialogue with staff, colleagues, and volunteers throughout the process, and consider external support during the process for an added level of objectivity
  • Be realistic when planning and enforcing actions around culture changes; it is an ongoing process, so it helps to have short, medium and long term actions

What is 'culture change'?

'Culture change' can sound challenging for an organisation. However, it covers a vast spectrum of actions, from tiny interventions to organisational-level initiatives.

Culture change is any shift in behaviour, expectations, or ethos within an organisation that affects the way it carries out its operations. It creates new ways of working that affect everyone within the organisation. Culture change towards more inclusive practices makes organisations better places to work or volunteer for all, even if the practices were originally targeted at specific groups. For example, if a workplace develops a flexible working policy at the request of staff with caring responsibilities, then all staff will benefit from this new approach to their working patterns and work/life balance.

It is natural for people to feel challenged by change, including employees, volunteers, and board members. However, change and adaptation are what makes organisations sustainable and resilient. External changes are largely outside of the control of organisations, and heritage sector organisations are subject to a wide variety of external change, including economic, political, and environmental. Culture change makes an organisation more able to adapt to external changes by controlling their own internal ones.

Research commissioned by Historic England into heritage boards found that there are many barriers in place to board membership. Organisations who recognise the need to take action on this may wish to begin the process of recruitment. However, the first step to a more diverse board is an honest appraisal of the organisation's current culture and to identify why diverse board members are not currently applying or being appointed. Without this honest appraisal and subsequent actions on culture change, diverse board members will either not apply for positions or be at risk of leaving or finding themselves in an organisation not ready to fully support them.

How do we start a conversation about culture change?

The first step in this conversation is accountability. This is not about blaming or shaming anyone from the organisation; it is an opportunity to be honest about current organisational behaviours and how to address them.

These behaviours can be conscious or unconscious, and without diverse board members, it may not be clear how they act as a barrier. These behaviours may make it challenging, uncomfortable, or even unpleasant for new board members, meaning they leave and the organisation will not benefit from their skills and experience. Recognising and taking steps to address these barriers helps develop an organisational culture that is better for all, not just incoming board members.

Key steps on this accountability journey are:

  • Sharing the Getting on Board report, commissioned by Historic England
  • Opening a dialogue with wider organisational staff and volunteers
  • Conducting a board diversity survey
  • Identifying who is missing
  • Reaching out to specialised organisations who work with these groups, who can advise you on common issues and behaviours that can act as a barrier. Read our signposting list
  • Undergoing inclusion and diversity training and specific awareness training once you have identified missing voices, so that the board can understand their experience and perspectives and recognise why certain behaviours may be an issue
  • Undergoing a period of reflection and consider the findings in your organisation's wider strategic plans
  • Developing a plan of action as a board

A board needs to reassure its leadership team and wider staff or volunteers that this course of action will benefit its organisation. Communicating your process and plans with the wider organisation in an open dialogue is good practice. Rather than a series of announcements or decisions made solely by the board, it is important to work with staff or volunteers, find key advocates who can speak to their colleagues, and develop opportunities for conversations and feedback.

You may be able to complete this process entirely internally. However, you may benefit from bringing in an external expert. An external voice can make it easier for wider staff and volunteers to engage with the process as there is a degree of objectivity and removal from existing relationships. An external expert can also bring different perspectives and advise on elements that individuals closer to the organisation may not recognise, even after a period of reflection. Such work can often be grant-funded as it is developing your organisation's resilience, so it does not necessarily need to impact your organisational finance.

Once you have developed your understanding of the potential barriers in place and elements of your organisation's culture that need to shift to address them, you can start to develop an action plan.

What are some example action points?

Taking such a thorough look at your organisation can appear daunting, but setting realistic action points helps rationalise the scale of work. Sharing this across your organisation, along with some tasks assigned to different people or groups of people, can also help emphasise the open process and the agency of staff or volunteers as well as the board.

Try developing a table of actions that happen in the short, medium, and long term. Consider some key questions:

1. How do these time periods interact with other strategic planning?

2. How long will these take to action, and who will action them?

3. What is the potential impact?

4. What are the potential risks, and do these need to be reflected in your risk register?

Actions can vary in scale and depend upon the nature of the barrier and your operational capacity. They should always be proportionate to the identified issue and reflect good risk management.

Small-scale actions could include:

  • Adaptations to meeting times and offering hybrid options
  • Reviewing language use to remove bias
  • Publishing commitment to IDE and sharing figures such as diversity audit

Medium-scale actions could include:

  • New flexible working policies, including compressed hours, flexible hours, job shares
  • Redeveloping promotional materials, including website and social media, to have more representative and inclusive imagery and language
  • Accessibility audit of both physical sites and online presence and digital procedures

Large-scale actions could include:

  • Organisation-wide integrated training programme in awareness of specific issues, delivered by external organisations
  • Redevelopment of the organisation’s policies and procedures
  • Joining accreditation schemes such as Disability Confident Employers

An example:

Short time period – 1 year

Change frequency of board meetings from bimonthly to monthly, and offer online or hybrid meeting

Interaction with strategic / business plan?

Minor – will have to ensure dates for financial and audit reports are maintained

Potential impact

More people able to commit the time

More open to people with other commitments such as work or caring

People unable to attend in person can join

Potential risk

Meetings become longer, so topics 'fall off' the agenda or are not covered in enough detail

Not sufficient technology skills or equipment (a barrier for some)




Senior Leadership Team (SLT)

Time commitment

<1 day (to rearrange diaries, communicate with board and SLT, set up online meeting logistics)

What are the main barrier-creating organisational behaviours that we could examine?

Your organisation’s plan for culture change will depend upon the findings of the conversations above. However, some common strands around culture change are worth considering when developing your plan of action.

This is not a comprehensive list. However, some of the common barriers in place that may require action to address are:

  • Attitudes around 'traditional' roles in heritage for specific individuals
  • Attachments to current, potentially long-standing ways of working
  • Lack of representation
  • Lack of knowledge of accessibility
  • Concern over alienating existing audiences
  • Fear of 'getting it wrong'
  • Structure of board business, including meeting times and locations, format of papers, and timings of communication with board members

Tackling these begins with the accountability process outlined above and working on constructive ways of blending organisational expertise and experience with recognition of the need for change.

For each barrier, instead of assigning blame, look for solution-based discussions. Think about why each barrier exists and who could help in removing it. This could be existing staff or board members, or could require support externally.

It is important to remember that change is a process and does not happen rapidly. It can feel frustrating not to be able to transform an organisation quickly, but change must be handled with sensitivity and a keen eye to the risks and responsibilities of a board. Build in consultation along the way and have a strong line of communication with everyone involved at all levels of the organisation, as well as with your customers, service users, or visitors.