Tahmid Chowdhury: As a young CEO and trustee, imposter syndrome is very real

In October 2017, I joined the board of a small but highly regarded charity in London: the King’s Head Theatre. It was my first of several trusteeships and I am proud to still be part of the team today.

Joining the board felt very natural at the time. My fellow trustees had a rich range of experience; we were relatively young and diverse; and we all had a shared love of the arts. It was only later that I realised how rare some of this can be.

Back in 2017, the Charity Commission and Office for Civil Responsibility commissioned a report into board diversity. It found that the average age of trustees is 55-64, and over half of trustees are retired. Research also suggests that 70% of trustees are men; and ethnic minorities are also significantly underrepresented. As a now-25-year-old son of Bangladeshi immigrants, I still find this shocking.

I have a huge amount of respect for every charity trustee. Hundreds of thousands of individuals across the country are volunteering their time and expertise to address vital societal issues. They should all be commended for their generosity, regardless of their background.

As a trustee, I understand several factors behind the figures. For example, doing the job well requires a time commitment, which older and retired individuals can often meet more easily. However, as a young BAME man, I see other reasons: lack of opportunity and confidence.

When I joined the King’s Head Theatre, over two thirds of trustees in the UK were recruited through an informal process. Younger people are far less likely to have the networks to even know such processes exist, and arguably the same can be said for ethnic minorities and those from less affluent backgrounds.

I recognise that this is a difficult issue to solve. I co-founded my own charity, Here for Good, in 2018. Whilst I am proud that half of our Board are women, half have lived experience, a quarter are LGBT+, and a quarter are under 30, I am also acutely aware of where we fall short in our diversity. A lot of these challenges stem from a desire to have people I ‘trusted’ on the Board when we founded. That has had massive benefits, but it does necessarily mean limiting the opportunity to a relatively small network.

It is for this reason that the responsibility for providing greater opportunity falls on many organisations: The Charity Commission, funders and, of course, charities themselves. There are already several initiatives underway to boost diversity, and we as a sector should not shy away from using our voices to drive change.

Unfortunately, the bigger challenge seems to be addressing the confidence issue amongst demographics that are less likely to be on charity boards. In recent years we have started to acknowledge the realities of ‘imposter syndrome’, but I would question how much has really been done about it in the third sector.

Far more qualified individuals than me have written at length about ‘imposter syndrome’ for people from BAME backgrounds. All I would observe from a charity perspective is the unintended hypocrisy of the current situation. As a sector, we quite rightly pride ourselves on the good we are doing and the difference we are making. However, that can sometimes translate into moral superiority and create a sense of exclusivity. For already-marginalised communities and demographics, this makes charity leadership positions, in many cases, inaccessible.

As a young trustee, ‘imposter syndrome’ is very real. The concept of experience and time being inextricably linked is ingrained in our society. It is for this reason that we assume that the older someone is the more they know.

Of course, this is often the case. However, for the charity sector to really thrive, we need to appreciate different types of experience that are not linked solely to time. The world has changed enormously over the past twenty years. Young people have a perspective and instinct that should be harnessed in all corners of society, and the third sector should be taking the lead.

Being young, female or BAME should never be a barrier. As a uniquely progressive sector, we have a responsibility to drive change. I firmly believe that we can create a better society as a result, both for our beneficiaries and for ourselves.

Thamid Chowdhury is the co-founder of Here For Good and a trustee of King’s Head Theatre and The Access Project. He was recently named on the Forbes Under 30 list.

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