As part of our Chairs in Conversation series, Marie McQuade sits down with Yinnon Ezra MBE to discuss the pragmatics of diversity on boards, and how far we still have to go. 

Yinnon has enjoyed a 40-year career in local government, including being a chief officer across three different local authorities. Having run large cultural services organisations such as libraries, country parks and leisure centres, Yinnon also led the development of the Turner Contemporary project in Margate. He has also been instrumental in transforming traditional libraries into modern “Discovery Centres”, concluding his career as the Department of Culture’s National Advisor for Public Libraries.

Yinnon’s non-executive career includes being a national board trustee for the Heritage Lottery Fund, Vice-Chair of the Hampshire Cultural Trust and Chair at a local arts organisation, among other projects.

Yinnon’s approach to diversity.

I started my career as a race equality worker in West London, in Southall – I was there when Blair Peach was killed.

For me, diversity and equality are not an extra, it’s part of my life. It’s been what has guided my ethical and moral position in all the projects I’ve been part of.

I think there are two basic issues. The first is considering how services are delivered to the whole community, making sure to reach and involve traditionally excluded groups. The second is making sure that your workforce and the people who volunteer with you represent the communities that you’re working in.

These aren’t big things, but together they create the atmosphere of inclusion that is central to today’s conversations.

Think beyond policy.

It’s important to have the policy framework, but you need to think beyond this to implement a series of practical actions you can take.

I was in London when there was a big push for equality officers in different local authorities and what was then the Greater London Council. Some of those policies worked really well to transform services.

Others were promoted into jobs that they didn’t have enough support for and were set up to fail.

The key difference between where it worked and where it didn’t was those that considered the practicalities like support.

“When you’re sat on a national board and sat on a board with people with professional accolades, it’s easy to feel intimidated. Being able to convert that feeling into a creative process for people is quite important.”

Community involvement.

Another consideration is how to get black communities, particularly black women and others, to feel that they want to join boards.

The first thing is a financial limitation – why would you want to “waste” all this time volunteering, when you could use the time to earn money. This is an important matter for everyone really, especially during the cost-of-living crisis.

The second limitation is access.

At the Heritage Lottery Fund, we had two levels of boards – the regional and the national. We set up a national mentoring scheme for mainly black and ethnic minority trustees on the regional boards, to get mentored by a trustee at the national level. They spent a year getting involved in projects and shadowing people, with the aim at the end of the year to give them the confidence to apply for a vacancy as a national trustee or take on additional non-executive opportunities.

A scheme like this is instrumental in providing access to people who may not have previously felt like they belonged. When you’re sat on a national board and sat on a board with people with professional accolades, it’s easy to feel intimidated. Being able to convert that feeling into a creative process for people is quite important.

Success in these programmes isn’t immediate and it can hover around 50/50, but I think it’s a model that has a lot of potential and I urge people to consider it.

The power of mentoring.

Making the opportunities available and accessible is the first step, and then it’s about making sure the right infrastructure and support are in place.

I’m a huge fan of mentoring, and I think it’s often more successful than all the equality policies put together in terms of creating practical skills for people to go on and occupy these positions successfully.

Don’t just talk the talk.

The Race Relations Act was passed in 1968 – that’s over 50 years ago.

There isn’t a lack of willingness to create change. There is a lack of creativity in finding practical solutions to make it happen.

Before this interview, I looked at the board of another national body that I served on, and none of the people on that board were black. They might be trying to recruit, but it also comes down to the vibe that’s created in the organisation.

I remember being part of a chief officer group where everyone was male. There was a change in administration and some people retired, and a female chief executive was recruited. Within about three years, the majority of the chief officers were all female. And I put that down to a change of vibe – all of a sudden, the message became we want women, we need women, and we want them in leadership positions. The women who were appointed deserved the positions, they were bright and competent, and I learned a lot from them – these weren’t tokenistic appointments to tick a box. All that changed was the message that we don’t just talk the talk, we also walk the walk.

Some final thoughts.

I think it’s sad that there aren’t enough people who feel motivated to join these structures or are encouraged to get on them and stay on them.

The situation as it is, isn’t a good one.

Having people at these levels who come from the communities you serve means having an innate understanding of how those services are delivered and received in the community. And that’s just good for business.

Marie McQuade has a long history of working with charities to create impact. She has been recruiting board members for charities across the country since 2023.

You can get in touch with Marie via her LinkedIn profile or you can send her an email.