CEO blog | Reflections on Trustees’ Week 2023

21 November 2023

Carol Mack, ACF’s chief executive, celebrates the vital work of foundation trustees and looks at the steps they are taking to advance diversity and inclusion.


As Trustees’ Week drew to a close recently, I found myself reflecting on the critical role of trustees in foundations and grant-making trusts. Over the past few years they have navigated their organisations through unprecedented challenges, including a global pandemic, rising inequalities, and now a cost-of-living crisis. I know from personal experience how important it is to have a good board - and I count my lucky stars to have such an engaged and supportive group of trustees at ACF.

This year Trustees’ Week shone a light on the work that charity boards are doing to advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), while also underscoring how very much further we all have to go. We are all at different stages and I'm always delighted by how openly foundations share their experiences: not only of what they've accomplished but how they've managed it.

This is an ongoing journey, not a destination or tick box exercise. This can sound daunting, but as Anj Handa of Getting on Board recently pointed out to me, continuous improvement is not unique to DEI. As charities we expect to get better at the way we deliver our mission, use IT and do our fundraising. DEI is no different. We all need to keep up with the pace of change and continue to move forward.

Our members tell us that embedding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) remains high on their agenda as they wrestle with a difficult economic situation and increased demand for their funding. Trustees are reflecting both on their own practice and how they can take practical steps to bring about change. For example, we have seen family foundations change their governing documents to recruit beyond family members, signalling a commitment to diverse representation on boards and decision-making committees.

Foundations recognise that they need to go further and faster on DEI and are taking action. And the good news is that there are plenty of resources to support this journey. A great place to start is ACF’s Stronger Foundations report on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, with our special report for Chairs a useful context setter on foundation practice more broadly.

Data will also be key to help shift the dial further on diversity – the last set of data on the diversity of foundation trustees dates back to 2017. Continuing the journey metaphor, it can be difficult to plan where you are going if you don’t know where you are, and that’s why we support the Charity Commission’s endeavour to build a comprehensive, robust data set about charity trustees in England and Wales, which we know will be of great interest to our membership.

Our members tell us that diversity alone is not enough; an inclusive board culture is paramount. Which is why we chose this as the topic for our annual peer-exchange session for foundation chairs. Members shared many great ideas on how to make boards more inclusive, inspired by Anj Handa who spoke of an inclusive board culture as one which “elevates different voices, values contrasting perspectives, and holds space for uncomfortable conversations.” We’ve captured insights from the evening in a special briefing for members.

My thanks go out to all trustees of trusts and foundations for their time and dedication. The positive challenge, guidance and support they provide immeasurably strengthens the sector and I look forward to witnessing how foundation boards sustain the momentum on diversity and inclusion now and in the years ahead, understanding the importance of creating spaces where everyone feels included and valued.