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Putting feminism at the heart of governance

This opinion piece is over 9 years old

Shirley Otto explores what all charities can learn from a recent investigation of governance within feminist organisations

Shirley Otto
Shirley Otto

Feminist organisations have long considered how to embed their values into the management of their organisations, but there is an argument that all charities should seek to introduce feminist values.

A recent briefing from the Centre for Research into Families and Relationships (CRFR) looks at governance from the point of view of feminist values; the ideals or principles at the heart of organisations that support girls and women survivors of sexual violence.

Understanding the use and abuse of power, not only in terms of discrimination against women, but also of other vulnerable and marginalised groups in our communities, cannot but be core to values of all charity governance

Based on conversations with trustees and other associates, the CRFR suggests six feminist values that are fundamental to good governance.

Activism for social change implies that the values of an organisations are explicit in strategy and shape the services that they create. Robust accountability is another value that ensures an open and clear process for reporting.

The paper also suggests that governance should be inclusive, recruiting trustees from a range of backgrounds, and there should be a positive use of power and authority, including apprenticeships for governance and succession planning.

Specifically in relation to this client group, it also looks at investment in the survivor’s voice and incorporating active ways of hearing and affirming clients’ voices in governance. And finally, it highlighted emotional responsibility and the importance of providing training to trustees to manage differences.

Creating a list of values is one thing, however, but the challenge is in specifying what organisations should require of trustees, staff and volunteers in real, everyday terms.

What are the expected behaviours and outcomes and to what extent is there agreement about them? Exploring these has demonstrated the value of unravelling assumption about good governance and then actively integrating values into governance practice and processes.

Most of the values listed above are not unique to feminist organisations. Indeed, it could be argued, they are all essential if a board is to make a sound and sustained contribution to their charity.

What is significant about these values is firstly the commitment, at core, to feminist values and, secondly, the view that trustees are activist for social change; trustees are more than just stewards of their charity’s assets and strategic outcomes.

Bringing values to the heart of governance results in trustees being active, rather than reactive, forces for difference internally and outwith the charity.

So, is there a wider reason for all charities to consider feminism in governance?

There was a conspicuous appetite to understand and debate the nature of feminist values in the consultation that led to the CRFR’s briefing. The touchstone though was that sexual violence is both a cause and a consequence of gender-based inequalities. Understanding the use and abuse of power, not only in terms of discrimination against women, but also of other vulnerable and marginalised groups in our communities, cannot but be core to values of all charity governance.

Commitment to collaboration and empowerment rather than competition and oppression; enabling structures, rigorous reporting practice and encourage individuals to own and be responsible for their behaviour – what is there not to like about feminist governance in charities?

Shirley Otto is a member of the voluntary sector Management Development Network. She specialises in governance, organisational reviews and managing change.