Help for not for profit and charity trustees

Lived Experience

Is the idea of people with lived experience on boards a buzzword looking for a justification?

The idea that people with lived experience (LE) should be recruited onto trustee boards more widely is cropping up frequently these days and some funders are expecting to see such people on organisations seeking funding. At first sight it seems like common sense and a desirable thing to do. However, like all these ideas that appear and seem to gain instant traction, the more you look at them the less clear they become. There is a growing literature suggesting this as a sound objective for boards of not for profit organisations.

The benefits are set out by SCVO (2021) and include greater accountability; insight into the needs and challenges of particular groups; providing new perspectives and offering opportunities for people to learn and grow and develop their knowledge. Others suggest it enables a board to fill a knowledge gap.

But, what exactly is ‘lived experience’? The problem in part is the word ‘experience’ and quite what it means. Experience of what exactly? The more you probe this word the less it seems to mean. I suspect if you tried to write a definition of LE you would find it quite a challenge.

It goes without saying that any charity should go to a lot of trouble to understand the needs, problems, experiences and challenges faced by the people it is trying to help. I suggest this is best done at an operational level either directly from feedback by staff and volunteers, asking those it is helping for feedback and other methods such as surveys, to ensure that the charity is doing its best for its clients. Failure to do this will lead to the charity slowly losing touch and even see a fall off in demand for its services.

Proponents of LE suggest that those with the required experience become board members. Setting aside the question of what form the experience is and how relevant it is for board membership, it seems to overlook the prevalent advice that boards should focus on strategic issues, not on day to day management. Boards should be concerned with matters such as its future direction, its fitness for purpose, governance, finance and solvency, communications, staff development and well-being, and so forth. LE seems to me to have only limited relevance to these topics and indeed, could even get in the way.

Many, if not most, small charities are only too aware of the problems affecting the people they are trying to help. Unlike some large government departments or large commercial organisations, they are in direct and frequent touch with those who are struggling to live their lives. A staff member or volunteer may be in regular contact with a number of such people with distressing stories and experiences. They may spend considerable time battling on their behalf to resolve issues. I could not escape feeling – reading some material before writing this – that proponents of the idea were suggesting that charities were somehow out of touch. They needed those who were experiencing problems (of whatever kind) to join boards to tell them how it is.

This is not to say that someone with LE cannot come onto a board and contribute in a variety of ways to the successful management of the charity. But are they, at every meeting, going to recite the problems they have experienced ad infinitum?

This is why I suggest that the concept of LE is something of a buzzword. Reading some of the recommendations by its supporters suggests a lack of understanding of what a board is about. Sure, it would be a good idea for someone to come and speak to the board and give an account of their experience and how the charity helped, or indeed could not help them in their lives. This would be an important component of the feedback they should be garnering from all sources.

In my book I discuss the various attributes someone can offer a board and what I called ‘diversity of experience’ is indeed one of them. But it is but one of a range of skills an ideal board should have.

Peter Curbishley

Author of How to be a Successful Trustee

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