Benefits of Having Lived Experience on Organisational Boards

In a previous blog, we highlighted the important role the voice of lived experience has to play in voluntary sector organisations. It can help to shape both service design and delivery, whilst also directly contributing to the overall decision-making process. Here, Livingston James’ Director of Public Sector and Not for Profit, Douglas Adam, looks at the benefits of welcoming those with lived experience onto an organisation’s Board.


Representation Matters

There can be occasions when Board Members are one step removed from the harsh realities of the real-life experiences of those people or communities who benefit from their services. The inclusion of someone with lived experience around the Board table will ultimately help organisations become closer to the issues they are tackling.

Working with those who have lived experience facilitates a greater understanding of the issues that service users are facing and provides a unique insight into how they want to be helped.

Research by UK Human Rights Lawyer Baljeet Sandhu shows that voluntary boards work most effectively when there is diversity of thought, gained through an appropriate balance of knowledge, skills and backgrounds. The perspective of someone with lived experience often proves invaluable as it brings new perspectives to Board discussions.

It can also, when appropriate, bring to light harsh realities in relation to the needs and challenges the organisation hopes to tackle, ensuring better decision-making. By providing a good role model for service users in the communities the charity supports, inclusion of those with lived experience on Boards may even encourage more people who could benefit from the services to engage with the charity by increasing visibility and representation.


Lived Experience in Practice

A prime example of a charity embracing such benefits is Who Cares? Scotland, a national voluntary organisation that works to ensure the voices of care experienced people are heard. Their mission is to secure a lifetime of equality, respect, and love for Care Experienced people in Scotland.

Recognising the operational and strategic advantages of involving those with lived experience in decision-making, Ryan McCuaig, Chair of Who Cares? Scotland, commented…

“As a Care Experienced individual myself I understand the importance of having individuals on the Board who have a real and tangible understanding of the barriers and challenges that Who Cares? Scotland is focused on addressing. At the heart of our work are the rights of Care Experienced people and the power their voices have to bring about change. It is therefore imperative that we “practice what we preach” and ensure the voice of lived experience directly shapes the future strategic direction of the organisation. Having a strong voice of lived experience around the Board table also ensures that, individually and collectively, we are all held accountable for ensuring Who Cares? Scotland continues to meet both the current and future needs of both our members and the wider Care Experienced community across Scotland.”


The Benefits to Board Members

With the advantages to organisations clear, it is also useful to explore how those who opt to engage in a Board role can similarly benefit from the experience. Providing an excellent means of personal and career development, a Board position develops critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical and team-working skills. The Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) and Bayes Business School have created an online resource to share information around how organisations have reaped the benefits of welcoming Trustees with lived experience onto their Boards.

It is an opportunity to engage in a professional workplace, while creating valuable change. For some, this may be the first opportunity they have had of this nature and could open new doors for them in their own workplaces.

Joining a Board can also give an individual the opportunity to inspire, support, and guide others who have faced similar challenges to them and, therefore, allow them to make a tangible difference in their own community.


Addressing the Challenges

Whilst there are obvious benefits to both the organisation and individuals involved, it would be remiss not to discuss the potential barriers. Different perspectives are certainly beneficial, however, this may also mean that not everyone shares the same view or levels of understanding with respect to why it is so important to have lived experience around the  Board table.

It is possible that those with lived experience may offer qualities that are unique and insightful, although they may not have the experience traditionally expected for such a role. As such, existing Board Trustees may need to adjust their perceptions of the attributes needed to become a successful Trustee. On the other side, it may make potential candidates with valuable lived experience feel slightly isolated and that they do not have the required skills and experience to be a successful Board Member.

Prior to commencing the recruitment process, it is imperative that the existing Board is clear on exactly what skills and experience is required to complement the existing skills and experience of the Board. They must also be clear on what they hope to achieve by recruiting someone with lived experience: this is fundamental to a successful appointment.

It is crucial that consideration of how best to involve those with lived experience doesn’t stop after the recruitment process. It is important to consider how to maintain engagement during all Board discussions and meetings. Whilst discussions concerning existing or future service provision or influencing policy are likely to be of great interest, more often discussions around budgets or operational matters may have less appeal to someone without traditional boardroom experience. Considering how individuals with lived experience can be brought into this conversation is therefore highly important.

Whilst there may be barriers and required adjustments to allow for real change, by actively recruiting Trustees with lived experience, charities can benefit from greater accountability, legitimacy, and an increased level of credibility within the communities they serve.

For a confidential discussion around your public and not for profit leadership requirements, contact [email protected].

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