Interviews & articles

Sarah Gee, Spitalfields Music: "We are you, and you are us" - Governance Now: Championing Communities

By Sarah Gee, Chief Executive, Spitalfields Music [November 2022]

This year’s Governance Now conference explores place-making and civic agendas in the cultural sector and the vital support required from boards and trustees. In the run up, we asked Sarah Gee– Chief Executive at Spitalfields Music - for her reflections on the challenges of creating a diverse Board and the training programme they have initiated for new trustees.

We are you, and you are us

Our board will never be sufficiently diverse for my liking. There, I’ve said it.

The reality is that without having 68 million people as trustees – and who has the time to service that?! – we will never be representative of everyone in the UK. And yet, as a charity, we do have a responsibility to our beneficiaries which in the case of Spitalfields Music is defined as children & young people, elderly/old and/or disabled people, and ‘The General Public/mankind’. So, the entire UK population, right?

Being based in East London, our local community is very ethnically diverse, with 137 languages spoken in our schools, and is one of the most deprived in the UK. The term ethnic minority equals White British in these parts, so instead we talk about minoritised communities - an important distinction, encompassing a far wider range of characteristics and circumstances than the more prevalent ethnicity-based definition. For instance, socio-economic contexts and class are big issues, and we believe that an intersectional approach will have more lasting impact.

In 2020, we said a fond farewell to some long-standing trustees, and kicked off a new round of board recruitment, following a skills and protected characteristics audit. We were fortunate to find four excellent candidates, who have brought great experience to our ranks, but we also saw several people who had diverse backgrounds and much to contribute, but scant idea of what being a trustee meant in practice.

It was felt that recruiting first-time trustees presented too much organisational risk in a period where we were dealing with Covid, home-working, and big personnel changes in our small team. However, there remained a clear need for Spitalfields Music to recruit from under-represented groups in society, to prevent a monocultural governance structure and to bring different views and life experiences into the room. With that in mind, we set about addressing the challenge.

Our Trainee Trustee scheme is very simple: we give the full trustee experience, without any of the legal or financial liabilities. We offer a year-long traineeship, which includes attendance at board meetings; sessions pre- and post- with senior staff to develop deeper understanding of how the organisation and boards work, including the implications and impact of decisions made by trustees; namely, a trustee as a board buddy; and formal training on the requirements of the Charity Commission. In year one, we chose to prioritise applications from people from Asian or Black communities; d/Deaf, disabled and neuro-diverse people; and people aged under 35, because those were the gaps on our board. Other organisations will have different needs, and this initiative can accommodate that.

So, has it worked? Time will tell. In year one, we recruited four trainee trustees, all of whom saw their own early musical experiences as a gift from the public purse and so wanted to put something back into civil society. Our trustees - and particularly our Chair, Maurice Biriotti - were magnificent in embracing this scheme, and the trainees noted how included they felt:

“It was fascinating to be part of the conversations and debates about the future. It’s good to seek the views of the younger generation.”

“I was very stimulated by the mood for change. It’s given me a lot of confidence to proceed with my career”

As an organisation, we’re very open to sharing our stories so that others can learn from what’s worked, and what hasn’t. For instance, we’ve learned that our networks aren’t as robust as we thought, and that we need to invest in friendships now to have a wider pool of trustee applicants in future years. Our board is still nowhere near as ethnically diverse as I’d like, and we need more people with personal experience of disability to bring different views into our governance processes.

We’ve just recruited the year two cohort. Twenty-one people applied this time, and we could have filled our five spaces several times over. The people we’ve selected are outstanding, and I can’t wait to work with them. We’re not guaranteeing trainee trustees an automatic seat on our board, and would still regard it as success if they decided to put their time into another organisation, or none; finding trusteeship is not for you is equally valid. As a serial trustee for over twenty years, I’m fully aware of how much time it takes to prep, keep on top of Charity Commission information, attend meetings, etc. It’s an unpaid job, and not everyone wants to – or can – take that on.

But just think what a revolution in charity governance we could bring about if every organisation ran a scheme like ours? If every arts organisation made a commitment to support people who mirrored gaps on their board? We’d have a rich pool of trained potential trustees, who were under no illusion as to the input required, who knew how to challenge and to support, and were fully versed in charity law and accounting. What bliss that would be for us CEOs – but even more so, what a difference that would make to our artistic work, to our relevance, to our ability to hold up a mirror to the whole UK population and say, “We are you, and you are us”.

Sarah Gee

Chief Executive, Spitalfields Music

We hope you’ll join Sarah Gee and a host of other fantastic speakers at Governance Now: Championing Communities — the flagship conference for culture sector trustees and professionals.

Governance Now takes place from 09.45-18.30 on Wednesday 8 February 2023 at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham. Join the conversation and book your ticket now.

arts_councilFill 42BoardFill 1 CopyFill 1Fill 42Dropdown Copy 2FacebookFinanceInstagramLinkedInMenu ToggleSearcbui-chevron-nextui-chevron-prevArtboard 4RolesSearchStructuresStudyTwitterYouTube