#BOARDTALK - What is lived experience?.

Jun 11, 2021

But what do we mean by lived experience? When I have worked with charities whose purpose is to work with people with learning difficulties, it can mean a person with learning difficulties or the parent/carer of such a person. In other cases, it has meant a beneficiary of a charity’s services or someone who represents the demographic of a service user. The problem is that the definition is open to interpretation and there is a strong case for not using it all; rather be specific about the type of person you want in any recruitment material. 

Why lived experience is important

There are very good reasons for having someone with lived experience on the board. These have been articulated superbly by the Centre for Charity Effectiveness at Cass Business School which has produced an immensely helpful resource on this subject. These include:

  • Being there from the start of generative strategic conversation
  • Remaining as a constant challenge as boards make evidence based decisions
  • Helping to scrutinise performance through the eyes of the beneficiary
  • Ensuring accountability to our community and wider society

How do you do it?

Recruitment is not a purely scientific endeavour. There is no magic formula for getting it right; one cannot simply pull a lever and expect a perfect outcome. Recruitment is messy and multi-layered and any board that is recruiting needs to think about:

  • The language used to describe the role and the organisation
  • The perception of the organisation and the leadership from those outside
  • Their own assumptions relating to the value of those with lived experience

A wise man once told me that you can learn something from everybody. He did not mean it in a patronizing way but rather with full sincerity and belief, and I have found it to be true. Some boards are stuck in their own echo chambers because the rationale of this aspect of diversity has not got through. 

The challenge

For those who have not considered lived experience on their boards, I would suggest you make this an agenda item for your next meeting. For those who do it well, share your knowledge and experience so that together we will have a more inclusive, insightful, and impactful sector.

Ian Joseph is Managing Director of Trustees Unlimited and a Board Director of Russam. For more information, you can contact him on [email protected]


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