27 November 2020

2020 has shown us just how crucial good homes and strong communities are. As we emerge from the pandemic into a new environment, I was pleased to join fellow chairs and board members at the NHF’s Board Excellence Conference 2021 to discuss some of the key issues the sector is set to face as we look towards recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

This year, boards of social housing providers have faced major challenges as we’ve helped steer our organisations through rapid change and uncertainty. Alongside the pandemic, the global Black Lives Matter movement has provided a stark reminder of the systemic racism that persists across the world and the need for organisations to seriously reflect upon how we can make real, lasting change in these areas.

We have also seen the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on communities who were already facing difficulties, such as making ends meet or dealing with ill health. The inequalities entrenched in our society have been brought into sharp focus and, undoubtedly, this has led to a heightened awareness of the need for change in both our workplaces and communities. It is clear that a shake-up in working practice and culture is required and this starts with boards taking notice and taking ownership.

As I reflect on the challenges of this last year, I am struck by the renewed importance of inclusive leadership and boards that comprise of diverse voices and perspectives. If we are to address the persistent biases in our communities, it’s important that we also address them in our workplaces. At all levels of our organisations we need to better reflect the communities we serve, so that we can improve our decision-making, evolve to meet new challenges and build trust with our residents.

This must start with being bold in our approach to addressing systemic racism and promoting inclusivity. We know that black, Asian and minority ethnic colleagues, in the sector and beyond, are too often under-represented in senior leadership positions. We must go beyond tick-boxing exercises to address this and I it’s good to see that some of this work has already begun.

For example, this year, the G15 has set in motion a number of initiatives aimed at improving racial diversity at senior level including the G15 Diversity Pledge, which commits members to doubling the proportion of people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds on our boards to at least 30% by 2025. As part of this ambition, the Accelerate leadership development programme has been launched to nurture existing black, Asian and minority ethnic talent within the sector. At Metropolitan Thames Valley (MTVH), our successful Black on Board programme, in collaboration with race equality charity Olmec, has seen 80% of participants earn positions on boards of community organisations following their training.

If there is one thing the events of this year have taught us, however, it is that far more work needs to be done. At MTVH, we have taken time to reconnect with our founding values and renew our Diversity and Inclusion strategy. As an organisation founded in the 1950s to support people from the Windrush generation living in London to live well, a belief in equality is embedded in our history. We have drawn on this legacy to design a long-term plan for transformational culture and leadership change that recognises, celebrates and promotes diversity in all its forms.

Over the past few months, I have been part of conversations with colleagues across the organisation discussing race and equality. What I have heard loud and clear is a widespread appetite and energy for change – not just in the workplace, but in our communities too. As leaders, we have a responsibility to be responsive to these needs and seek a greater understanding of the intersectional inequalities facing our residents so that we can respond with cultural competency.

So, where do we go next? If there can be a positive that emerged from a truly unprecedented 2020, then perhaps it was the sight of so many allies standing strong beside black people in countries across the world, following the tragic murder of George Floyd. It is important for boards across the housing sector and beyond to respond to the events of the past year with same compassion and commitment. As social housing providers, our colleagues and communities will be looking to us to bring forward proactive, culturally competent measures which address the urgent need for change.

At our heart, we are social purpose organisations and it is more important now than ever that we lead with this in mind.

The NHF have just published the new Code of Governance 2020, designed to help housing associations achieve the highest standards of governance and board excellence.

Althea Efunshile

Althea is Chair of Metropolitan Thames Valley

Althea Efunshile CBE has had a 40 year public sector career, during which she has gained extensive senior leadership experience in education, children’s services and culture. She has worked at both local and national levels of government.

She has been Deputy Chief Executive at Arts Council England; a Senior Civil Servant within the Department of Education, employed in a number of director-level roles all aimed at improving outcomes for disadvantaged and socially excluded children; Executive Director for Education & Culture at the London Borough of Lewisham; and Assistant Director of Education at the London Borough of Merton.

Althea stepped down from a full-time executive career three years ago. She is now a Non-Executive Director of a small number of organisations, including University College London Hospitals (UCLH) and Channel 4. She is Chair of professional dance company Ballet Black.

Althea was awarded a CBE in the 2016 Birthday Honours.

To address systemic racism, a shake-up in working practice and culture is required – and this starts with boards