People stood in a community garden smiling, holding muddy white spades with white wheelbarrows in the foreground.
The Navvies Garden at Salford MediaCity was co-created by Artist Matthew Rosier and Salford’s Loaves and Fishes during his project Navvies, an artwork that recognised the role of the 17,000 navvies who dug the Manchester Ship Canal. © Matt Rosier
The Navvies Garden at Salford MediaCity was co-created by Artist Matthew Rosier and Salford’s Loaves and Fishes during his project Navvies, an artwork that recognised the role of the 17,000 navvies who dug the Manchester Ship Canal. © Matt Rosier

How Do We Set Up a 'Shadow Board' or Trainee Board Member Placements?

What is this resource for?

Our research shows that heritage Boards struggle with recruiting diverse trustees. This resource is designed to give you guidance on how to set up shadow boards, board shadowing programmes, and trainee board member placements.

This advice was produced on behalf of Historic England by Getting on Board.

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?

  • Shadow boards, board shadowing programmes, and trainee board member opportunities can be strong tools for diversifying boards, as they give people a chance to experience board work before they commit to a formal role
  • Board shadowers and trainee board members do not usually have voting rights, but they can join board meetings, take part in discussions and inform decision-making
  • These roles provide good continuing professional development (CPD) and skill-building opportunities
  • Having a cohort of board shadowers or trainees can work well to share learning and support each other through the process
  • Comprehensive support and clear guidance are required to make sure all make the best of the opportunity

Where do shadow boards and similar initiatives fit into heritage governance?

In October 2023, 141 UK Heritage Pulse panel members responded to a short survey on successes and challenges in organisational governance.

In Historic England's 'Barriers and Enablers to Board Diversity in the Heritage Sector' report, participants suggested introducing a 'vibe check' – a chance to shadow and spend time with a board to understand its culture and accessibility before applying.

Sub-committees are one route to board recruitment within the heritage sector, where it is often expected that people will work their way up through the ranks of committees before they become a full trustee. By recruiting a wider group of people to join your special interest groups and committees, people can gain exposure to governance structures.

As one interviewee for the report said: “There are Board sub-groups that support board structure. They are really influential. They can be diverse. [For the organisation, this is] playing the long game with board roles.”

Another option is to set up a 'shadow board' (sometimes called a 'mirror board'). This is a group of people who work with the main board on strategic initiatives. While there is no statutory function or legal responsibility, a shadow board essentially aims to provide insights, suggest ideas, encourage scrutiny, and challenge traditional ways of thinking.

When taking this route, you will need to consider how the shadow board will feed into board decision-making (for example, by nominating a representative such as a shadow chair to participate in your board meetings).

In other sectors, there are examples of board shadowing programmes as another route to developing trustees with lived experience expertise, such as grant maker Smallwood Trust’s model.

What are the benefits of setting up a board shadowing programme?

For organisations, board shadowing offers:

  • Working towards your organisation’s core objectives, which support your wider inclusion, diversity and equality (IDE) strategy
  • Giving stakeholders a voice, empowering them and bringing a diversity of viewpoints
  • Providing access to different networks and opportunities.
  • External recognition of your commitment to IDE, which means trust and relationships are built

For your board shadowers or trainee trustees, such initiatives offer them:

  • Broader personal development
  • A sense of purpose and positive focus
  • The confidence to step into a board role
  • An appreciation of the importance of having a variety of skills on a board
  • An appreciation of diversity of experiences and perspectives in its broadest sense

How do we prepare to launch our board shadowing programme?

Before you start, ask yourself whether your board is ready to provide a supportive and inclusive environment to new people who may be different from them. Getting on Board offers helpful training in this area.

Draft a description of the role and responsibilities of a shadow board member and formulate simple selection criteria. Identifying a board lead before launching is helpful, as shadowing requires a relational approach, where shadowers feel supported and confident to ask for clarification on anything they do not understand.

You can use the following criteria loosely to support a conversation between the board lead and CEO (or equivalent) about who to offer this opportunity to:

  • How many board shadowers or trainees will you bring in?
  • For how long? (9 months? 1 year?)
  • Which board member(s) will champion the initiative or be shadowed?
  • Which groups of people are under-represented on your board?
  • How will we reach these people?

A cohort model, where a group of people work on shadowing in parallel to share learning, works well. Two to three shadowers also benefit from peer learning and support. The number of shadowers could be higher, proportional to your board's size and ability to provide the right support.

How do we handle recruitment of our board shadowing programme?

Circulate the shadowing opportunity as widely as possible (for example, through a call-out, an advert on your website, LinkedIn, and wider networks).

Nominations (with the prior agreement of nominees) from partner organisations also work well. Make the application process as straightforward as possible and offer alternative ways to apply (for example, video). Please see our complementary advice – 'How Do We Draft Inclusive Board Recruitment Marketing and Promotional Materials?' – for details on drafting your advertising for the opportunity.

When you are designing the application process, include self-identification of demographics and lived experience expertise in a drop-down menu (such as being able to select 'experience of poverty' where you have identified that this experience is both useful to your aims and not currently present in your board) rather than asking for long text answers. This supports people interested in the role from having to relate details of their lived experience and disclose difficult accounts of poverty or trauma when expressing their interest.

Include a question about accessibility or other needs, making it clear that accommodations can be made and giving space for applicants to detail this in advance rather than requiring them to reach out and make requests.

Before confirming any appointment, enable the board member leading the shadowing programme to meet each candidate. This will allow both sides to get to know one another and make an active decision about whether they want to pursue the opportunity.

How do we handle onboarding?

Preparation for shadowing the board could involve sending papers to shadowers or trainees, followed by a pre-meeting – with, for example, members of the senior leadership team and board lead, where the papers are discussed and the shadowees or trainee trustees can ask questions to clarify any matters they are unfamiliar with. Offer each person the opportunity to arrange a 1-to-1 chat with individual trustees.

For further clarification, develop a document that makes explicit the roles and responsibilities of the organisation to the individual and vice versa.

How do we make sure meetings are inclusive?

  • Support board shadowers or trainee trustees to prepare for meetings by offering opportunities to have a conversation about the papers and upcoming meetings in advance over Zoom, on a phone call or face-to-face
  • Remind board members to avoid jargon and acronyms during discussions. It would help to provide a glossary of terms and acronyms that will commonly occur in board papers
  • The board meeting agenda should include a short, optional section for individuals to speak or ask questions, as agreed in advance with the board member they are shadowing
  • Structure the board agenda to support any possible issues around confidentiality or conflicts of interest (for example, if they are a current service user or client of your organisation). You can find some examples of these at the Corporate Governance Institute. As observers, shadowers or board trainees would take their leave prior to reserved matters or other sections for board-only conversations
  • If possible, hold face-to-face mentoring meetings. This helps build connections and to arrive at future board meetings feeling mentally prepared. However, requiring participants to attend face-to-face meetings could be restrictive, presenting them with challenges such as having to take leave, organise childcare, and so on, particularly for shadowers living outside the area.

Key elements for your programme could include:

  • Attendance at board meetings and sub-committee meetings
  • Optional pre-meetings and de-briefings with the lead trustee and the CEO (or equivalent before and after each board meeting (including optional monthly check-ins with the lead trustee)
  • Opportunities to learn about your work (including site or project visits)
  • Optional attendance at external events (such as report launches, webinars, open days)
  • Holding an informal networking session with board members prior to the first meeting (you could align the programme start date with a board away day)

How do we take accessibility and inclusion into account?

Accessibility and inclusion processes will develop and change over time to reflect both your current board and future members.

There are several considerations to make:

  • Have you been explicit that you don’t expect trustees to give details of their own experience? They will use their lived experience expertise to inform decision-making, but this doesn’t mean that they need to share personal details
  • How will you provide them with the emotional support and adjustments they might need because of emotional responses to challenging subjects in meetings or if they are ill or vulnerable?
  • Be explicit about what processes a board uses to enable all voices to be heard (including neurodivergent people and disabled people) and change your processes for those who require adjustments. Some might need board papers presented in a different format, such as Easy Read
  • Hold individual conversations about development needs and offer training bursaries if you can
  • Automatically offer a set amount to cover out of pocket expenses. Not everyone is willing to submit an expense form, especially if others are not doing so. Also, consider remuneration in some form

With regard to recruitment, one participant in our 'Barriers and Enablers to Board Diversity in the Heritage Sector' report said, “It would be great to be funded to train our expert advisors – people with lived experience of mental health challenges and our projects – to take on governance roles.”

To do this, you will need to find ways to reimburse trustees (or potential trustees) or encourage their employer to ring-fence time for them to take on a role (for example, if they work in the heritage sector, ask their employer to give them paid time off to attend board meetings).