Good governance:

Board diversity should be the means, not end

The recent report on 9.5 per cent female representation on the boards of Singapore Exchange-listed companies is proof of our progress as a nation where women are increasingly demonstrating their calibre and taking on the responsibility of leading organisations ("Women stepping up in S'pore boardrooms"; March 1).

We agree with Mr Lawrence Loh Kiah Muan that we are at a point in our national narrative where we must look beyond gender, to include skills, ability, knowledge and experience ("Diversity in boardrooms goes beyond gender"; last Saturday).

So, what proportion of each of these attributes is required for a board to be adequately diverse?

Let us take the example of non-profit boards.

A joint study by the National University of Singapore and the Centre for Non-Profit Leadership (CNPL) in 2013 revealed that board composition varied widely among non-profit organisations.

While overall representation of women in more than 94 per cent of non-profit boards was less than 50 per cent, this proportion was nearly 100 per cent in women's groups.

A similar trend was evident in the case of non-profit directors with medical backgrounds outside and within the healthcare sector.

Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for diversity, although its role in improved performance has been proven in multiple studies.

A 2013 United States study suggests that to avoid "tokenism", boards must focus on "the entity as a diverse mixture, not on individual representation" of each attribute.

We can surmise from this that diversity should be the means and not the end.

CNPL's experience working with more than 240 non-profit boards in Singapore has shown that good governance starts with board diversity.

Two solutions that CNPL offers to support this process are PulseCheck, a tool for non-profits to assess their current boards' composition and form an action plan to reach the optimum state, and BoardMatch, a programme through which non-profits can augment their boards with the expertise and experience of volunteer leaders from other sectors.

There are many levers that boards can pull to enhance board effectiveness, of which diversity is key.

Winifred Loh (Ms)

Managing Director

Centre for Non-Profit Leadership

(A part of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2016, with the headline 'Board diversity should be the means, not end'. Print Edition | Subscribe