Being an inclusive board

A practical guide to creating a board that functions both inclusively and effectively


Image: Istock

Dr Sarabajaya Kumar

Senior independent trustee, NCVO

Diversity of views, expertise and experience – lived and learned – ensures that board members are representative of the communities they serve. This leads not only to a high-functioning board, but also to improved decision making and accountability, which is critical to good governance in all sectors.

I have come to this understanding, not only because of my 35 years of governance experience, but also because of my intersectional positionality as a visibly disabled woman with heritage from the global majority. Therefore, from the perspectives of both professional expertise and lived experience, I am strongly committed to inclusive boards, as, in my experience, inclusive practice benefits all of society. How best to ensure this?

“I strongly recommend that the chair asks board members in advance what their needs and requirements are. This simple approach leads, in my experience, to high-functioning and truly inclusive boards in both theory and practice.”

Ask colleagues

By way of example, when I was chair of an international charity, I discussed with each of my fellow trustees how we, as a board, could ensure full participation so that we drew on all of our skills, expertise, and various talents. I learned a great deal from our conversations about my colleagues’ needs and priorities, including their:

  • Invisible and visible disabilities
  • Caring responsibilities
  • Attitudes to work-life balance
  • Differences in processing information
  • Communication preferences
  • Experiences of gender norms
  • Level of comfort of speaking publicly and in groups.

I strongly recommend that the chair asks board members in advance what their needs and requirements are. This approach leads, in my experience, to high-functioning and truly inclusive boards in both theory and practice.

Asking board members this simple question of how best to ensure their full participation, and the subsequent collective discussions it generated, informed how I approached my chairing role and our collective practice as a board. Obviously how inclusivity plays out in any group is dependent upon individual members and their needs. However, to illustrate my general practice, I will now give five examples of how this accommodating approach has played out practically in the boards I have chaired.



With board members often in different time zones, we ensured all meetings were set well in advance and with plenty of notice. We met both as a hybrid board through Zoom, but also once a year for two days in person for our strategy days, which we would also conclude with a social event.


Board papers

We ensured all board papers were issued at least two weeks before the meeting, with the unavoidable exception of urgent business. The executive team were encouraged to give succinct summaries alongside the longer documents. They were also encouraged to note what they would find most helpful to discuss with the board and receive feedback on. All documents were formatted according to the accessibility needs of members.


Agenda setting

Notwithstanding the regular agenda items, the agenda was set between myself as chair and the CEO, but also discussed with the vice chair at our regular meetings (which were held as part of our succession planning). In addition, all trustees were offered the opportunity to add items to the agenda, either prior to, or at, the meeting.



As a chair who became sight and mobility-impaired during my second term, I required documents to be adjusted for my specific requirements, and for a sighted support worker to assist me with running the meeting. For instance, they would alert me to which trustee wanted to speak and also assist in timekeeping. On the board I chaired, we agreed not to use the Zoom chat function as I cannot see it. On another board where I am a trustee, the chair reads the chat out loud if there is anything of significance.

As I am a wheelchair user, we ensured all venues used for board meetings are wheelchair accessible. While this might seem obvious, it is a challenge to find accessible venues as many are listed as accessible but in practice are not.



To facilitate the full and effective participation of all members during board meetings, I would, with prior permission, check in with anyone who had not spoken, in case they wished to contribute but did not feel they had had the opportunity to do so. This was particularly appreciated by a couple of trustees. One for reasons of a learning difference in that the member took longer to process information; the other was because they were from a racialised minority community who found the formality a little intimidating at times.

In summary, ensuring that board meetings are both inclusive and accessible is fairly straightforward. It requires some forethought and conversations with all trustees in recognition that everyone has specific needs, given their responsibilities and positionalities. Asking each board member about what would assist them to participate is well worth the time and investment to create an inclusive and highly effective board.


Building inclusive boards


Equality in the workplace