Reflecting on our Inaugural Board Shadowee Experience

Earlier in 2021, Smallwood invited three women with lived experience to shadow new trustee Dr Ambreen Shah and be involved in Smallwood Board meetings, access briefings and gain valuable insights into what being a Board member entails.

The initiative is part of Smallwood’s commitment to exploring new ways to help bring diversity, equity and inclusion into all of our work to support our goal of ending gendered poverty.

Six months after the start of the programme, we asked the shadowees about their time with Smallwood to date.

How has your shadowee experience been so far?
Shana Begum: The experience has been amazing for my confidence and it’s been so valuable to see how an organisation like Smallwood works behind closed doors with its decision makers. Smallwood is an organisation that really knows what ‘best practice’ is and I’ve got to see what that looks like in person.

Saira Shahzadi: It’s not an exaggeration to say it was life-changing. It has been a great learning experience and it was so good to meet the other Board members and learn how they use their different knowledge and perspectives to help make collective decisions.

Ciiku Sondergaard: Strong Boards make for strong organisations and Smallwood have a very strong Board with a combination of lived experience, work experience, training experience and professional experience who all bring something different to the table. By being included in this process, I feel more confident about bringing my own experience, my lived experience and my work experience to another organisation.

How will you use this experience going forward?
Saira: I recently joined a local organisation, Apna Haq, as a board member and one of the reasons I had the confidence to join them was because I was already shadowing with Smallwood – so I knew about the role and it wasn’t that intimidating when I was applying for it. I think they also considered me because of my experience with Smallwood.

Shana: Smallwood knew that they had three women with three different lived experiences at three different stages, so they made sure that any of our needs were catered for. I think this is ‘best practice’ and really needed particularly for anyone who is thinking of introducing lived experience on their Board. Sometimes we expect trustees to come in and just fit in but Smallwood took a bit more time in the nurturing-in process, with the pre-brief and debrief approach. I have since become a trustee for another organisation, Safelives, and as I know what ‘best practice’ looks like it gives me the confidence to make a positive contribution to them.

Ciiku: For the organisation I am already on the Board for, 4Wings, I can see the importance of having a variety of skill sets and experiences on a Board. It’s also given me the confidence to consider joining other organisations and use my voice to represent those that don’t usually get a seat at the table.

What was working with Dr Ambreen Shah like?
Ciiku: I don’t even have the words for her! She really made us feel a part of everything and never forgot anyone while we were part of these meetings. Sometimes it can be a bit confusing but just to have her there was very useful.

Saira: I always looked at Ambreen as my mentor. She has been really helpful and she’s a really friendly person and very nice to talk to. I can easily discuss anything with her and she has always been very supportive throughout this time. I know that whenever I have a problem I can easily go and discuss it with her.

Shana: Ambreen was fantastic as sometimes when you’re sitting in those meetings you will have lots of gaps in your knowledge, but because Ambreen was aware of that she would ask additional questions for our benefit as observers. Having Ambreen was fantastic as she created a lot of psychological safety for us to be there and if we did have a question we’d ask it so even though we were observers there was that space to be involved.

What would you say to anyone wanting to be a Board shadowee in the future?
Ciiku: Definitely do it because it’s very empowering to know that people believe that lived experience can bring something to the table. If you have the confidence to do it then do it because there’s so many people who don’t and we could raise their voices by just being a part of the decision making process.

Shana: If you’ve come from a disadvantaged background you might think that you don’t belong on a Board. You might have an idea that a trustee is from a certain academic or socio-economic background, but the Smallwood Board made me feel so welcome and actually my own lived experience, my disadvantaged backgrounds, my questions were a benefit because it helped everyone else re-evaluate themselves as well as their ideas.

Saira: I’d strongly urge people to come forward and apply because I believe if I can get selected, anyone can get selected. It is for anyone who wants to learn.

Reflecting on the initiative, Dr Ambreen Shah said: “My Board experience has been enriched by going on this journey with these shadowees – I am always in awe of the work they are all doing to support other women. By opening the doors and exposing what goes on around the board table and making these seemingly ‘not for me’ spaces more accessible, we can slowly change the lack of current diversity in the governance space.”

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