“What we do is more important than what we say, or what we say we believe.”
Bell Hooks (2014)
The Maternal Mental Health Alliance (MMHA) Board has recently recruited three new trustees. This has brought us to what will be many milestones in our journey to ensure equity, diversity and inclusion are at the heart of everything we do.
We set out from the start to do this recruitment very differently and, in this blog, we want to share what we have learned along the way.
If the past two years have taught us anything, it is just because we think we are ‘good people’ in the charity sector we must not assume that we are a truly diverse organisation. We started our intentional equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) journey with an explicit commitment by the whole board and staff team to look deeply at ourselves and our purpose. With early help from an external consultant, Letesia Gibson of New Ways, who provided a space for staff and trustees to reflect on our own values and experience and plan for becoming an anti-racist organisation. The trustees and the staff are now on the path to evolving how we do things and recognise that we need to make small incremental changes as well as some big ones.
Firstly, we knew we needed greater diversity on the Board and decided to recruit three new trustees to really expand the balance of voices around the table. We wanted to go beyond visible representation to change the future of the MMHA. EDI does not start and end with recruitment, but it was an important place to affect cultural change at the MMHA.
From previous experience, we knew we had to do things differently. As a group of white trustees, we couldn’t do it alone. Our first step was to bring in two advisers from the MMHA network of members and lived experience champions and to consult the excellent online advice that was available. We couldn’t have done it without them!
We want to share our approach and observations because of the deep learning experienced by all of us involved:
Setting out our stall
We began by being clear about why we needed trustees from different backgrounds. Our recruitment pack opened with an acknowledgement of the stark inequalities experienced by women and families during pregnancy and after birth, influenced by social, economic and cultural factors.
Open to all
We were explicit in giving opportunities to people who had not previously been a trustee or been in leadership roles before. We wanted to open the door as wide as possible and we knew we had enough experience on the Board to support new trustees that join.
Getting the language right
We had brilliant advice co-opted from our members and champions and drew on the guidance already available in the sector, making sure our language reflected social and cultural awareness and inclusivity.
What we will give our new trustees is as, if not more, important than what they will bring to the MMHA. Our pack set out what we are offering, which was the theme of the whole recruitment process, including buddying, training, and learning events.
Diversity AND skills
We knew we needed Black, Asian, and younger mothers to join our Board, but we also needed to fill the gaps we had identified in our skills audit, including bringing trustees on board with the experience of working in:
- communities with unequal outcomes in maternal mental health
- clinical perinatal care
- business development.
Focus on what matters
We did not ask for a CV. If someone was interested in becoming a trustee, we wanted to know what they were like, to tell us their story, their motivation, and what matters most to them.
Share the process
We took time to think through every part of the process to ensure it was as open and inclusive as possible and set out each step of the process, so applicants knew what to expect. Inevitably, we had to change things as not everything worked out as we originally planned.
Ditch the interview
Surely the most off-putting part of applying for any post is the interview. Why does the panel always ask questions? We turned this around and asked the applicants to ask us the questions. We set out the four themes we wanted to cover beforehand and asked them to come with questions to ask us.
No presentation, no interview by a panel.
What great conversations we had between us all! We learnt so much more about each person. Each of the discussions with the 8 applicants was fascinating. Moreover, the panel had to do some deep thinking about the role of being a trustee and the process generated lots of new ideas for us. It worked having the conversations both online and in person.
Applicants have so much to give
As much as we took a flexible and open approach so did the applicants and they participated fully in the process with open minds and helpful feedback.
“With regard to the recruitment process, I thought the recruitment pack was fantastic – very informative and helpful. The interview on the day was one of the most inspiring I’ve been involved in. You all made me feel at ease and I very much appreciated that.”
We also made mistakes
- We had to amend the plans for the day as we realised that it was not accessible to all and would simply demand too much time from the applicants, especially those with caring responsibilities.
- At the end of the process, we sent a blanket email to those candidates who had not been selected. Even though the tone was warm, this was at odds with the relational and thoughtful process that had gone before and didn’t respect the time and energy needed to participate in the process: “an email feels a little too impersonal to me given the level of personal investment”. We should have sent a personalised response to each person.
The five main takeaways
It was a privilege to take part in this different way of trustee recruitment and we all agree we will adopt this same process again. Our learning headlines are:
- We would have got many more things wrong without our advisors who shared their lived experience of inequality and discrimination. They helped us focus on what inclusivity looks like each step of the way.
- We were fortunate to have the support of the whole Board and in particular our Chair, Luciana Berger, whose personal commitment to EDI gave us the freedom and confidence to do things differently.
- Spending time pays off – we learned along the way that being truly inclusive is about us changing to meet the needs of each individual whatever they may be, to ensure we remove the barriers that so many potential trustees face.
- Being ready to hand over power – for us, this means being open to new and diverse perspectives, relinquishing certainty and power and leaning into the discomfort this may bring.
- Recruitment is just the beginning. We are now working with our three new trustees on their personal support and induction needs. We know the Board will have to make changes to how it operates. The aim is for the MMHA Board to hear, understand and act on the varied perspectives and experiences that they bring to the organisation and to give them a fulfilling and enjoyable experience as trustees.
Our experience shines a light on how vital continuous listening, hearing, and trying to do better is. Getting it right once is just that and we can’t stop here; this is about ongoing commitment. We are in no doubt that our three fantastic new trustees will help us all to change how we “do governance” and ultimately foster an organisational culture of diversity and inclusion, which is what this journey is all about.
Kate Billingham, Vice Chair
Christel Hawkins, Trustee and Chair of Governance Sub-Committee
Laura Seebohm, CEO