Volunteer your way to the top

group of volunteers working for a charity, volunteer

There has been a sustained effort in many countries around Europe to increase the representation of women on company boards.

Back in 2010 in the UK there were only 12.5 per cent women on boards, up from 9.4 per cent in 2004. Many campaigns have convinced governments across Europe and USA to push companies towards greater diversity and fairer balance.

Some progress has been achieved in this effort. For example in the US in 2017 almost all Fortune 500 boards have at least one woman, and many have two or more. The average board among these companies is made up of nine men and two women — double the number of female board members in 2006. In the UK significant progress continues to be made with increased gender diversity in the boardrooms of the UK’s top companies. Now almost a quarter of all FTSE 100 board positions are being filled by women.

The annual report from Lord Davies of Abersoch shows that four years on from his original report, female representation has almost doubled to 23.5 per cent. So these statistics made me wonder what are the barriers preventing women from reaching these coveted board positions? One of the objections I have heard time and time again is the expectation for women to have board experience before they are appointed to a board. But how do you get that coveted board experience in the first place?

There are several avenues available that might be helpful in building the skills needed for a board position. I will elaborate on three of them, as I have personally used two of them already and am waiting to try the last one.

School governance

Being a parent of two children in primary education, I looked at how I could lend my business skills to the boards of schools near where we live. Schools need to be run like companies – with a vision, a mission and values – and they operate on very tight budgets, always challenged to stretch their resources to deliver more. The academic performance of a school is measured termly and the governors are accountable for the strategic direction and development plan. This sounded perfect for me and it closely related to my day job.

I was quickly invited to join four boards, but in the end my time permitted me to accept only two of those offers. I quickly discovered that new governors are supported very well. I was offered a detailed induction by each school, new governor’s training by the local authority and additional training organised by the schools. I quickly learned new skills and how to adapt my “business world” experience to the world of primary education. Now I am a member of the Finance Committee in one and the chair of the Performance Committee in the other.


All charities in the UK have a board of trustees that set the strategic direction for the management team to execute. These board members are also unremunerated positions and a great way to make a difference if you have a cause that you are particularly passionate about. The boards of some of the larger charities are very selective, and they tend to also look for people with previous board experience. However there are many smaller charities that would appreciate a person with your skills on their board.

One such charity that invited me to become the chair of their trustee board was a small charity in North West London. It managed space designated for performing arts and the use of community groups. My experience in running my own businesses assured them that I could help them become sustainable, even if their funding was cut or stopped altogether (this was back in 2008 at the height of the recession, when many funds were cutting the grant amounts they were awarding, or tightening the eligibility criteria across the board). I remained with them for 10 years, during which time we took the strategic decision to open a subsidiary that operated much like a business and aimed to provide the charity with a regular flow of income, creating a buffer for times when grants would not be forthcoming.

Board apprentice

There is an organisation in the UK (www.boardapprentice.com) which would match aspiring board members with an institution willing to provide board experience by attending meetings and shadowing members for a year. Being allowed to even just observe board meetings, you can learn a great deal about the dynamics and workings of this environment. They work with many organisations that are committed to increasing the diversity on boards and to educate the board members of the future by modelling best practice.

Barriers to board roles exist to candidates of various backgrounds, gender, and ethnicity. However, now more than ever, companies are aware of the benefits of diverse boards to their results. Boards with more women on them have consistently proven that the companies are more successful, innovative, and productive compared with boards exclusively comprised of men.

About the author

Dessy Ohanians is the Managing Director of Executive Education at the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF).

Dessy’s role is to define the strategy and oversee the implementation of professional development and certificate programmes.

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