It is probably the first time that former BBC newsreader Anna Ford has been likened to fabric conditioner. But this is the very classification she has been given by one executive search company following her appointment in May as a non-executive director at Sainsbury.

In its list of non-executive descriptions (see panel), Directorbank describes the fabric conditioner non-exec as someone who has a particular interest in issues such as corporate social responsibility.

Sarah Grünewald, head of corporate at Directorbank, is not 100% convinced by the appointment. "It is good practice for a company to get more of a CSR face but giving a valuable seat on the board to one issue such as this is questionable," she says.

Nevertheless, she does see it as evidence that companies are widening the net in their search for non-execs and that more in general are being appointed. Unilever and John Lewis are both reportedly on the look out. As for recent appointments, former Dixons boss, Lord Kalms has become non-executive chairman of Acorn Brands; ex-PepsiCo UK president Martin Glenn has joined babyfood company Plum Baby; ex-Hilton boss David Michels has joined M&S; ex-Warburtons chief executive Ross Warburton has become non-executive director and deputy chairman at Uniq; and Duchy Originals MD Belinda Gooding has also joined Uniq's ranks.

The appointments suggest that the recommendations made by the Combined Code of Corporate Governance (that incorporated reports such as the Higgs and Tyson Reports) are finally beginning to have an impact.

They also indicate that there has been a shift away from the old model of a "sea of identical suits who'd been big in the City", says Grünewald. "You probably still see boards with one non-exec with City experience and one former finance director who chairs the audit committee, but there are now more leftfield appointments."

As well as advocating a more balanced and diverse mixture of non-executives, the code also recommends having an equal number of non-execs and executives. In some cases this has resulted in more non-execs being appointed, but in others it has led to a reduction in the number of executives on the board. This has certainly been evident among food retailers.Sainsbury now has only two executives on its board - chief executive Justin King and finance director Darren Shapland. M&S went from seven executives in 2002 to three in 2005. And Tesco cut its executives from eight to six over the same period.

The retailer that has arguably undergone the most dramatic change is Morrisons where deputy chairman David Jones became the senior non-exec and subsequently had a hard time battling it out around the boardroom table with Sir Ken Morrison before he left at the end of last month.

It is no great surprise that he agrees with the equal numbers of executives and non-execs rule. He also believes that non-execs should spend at least three days per month in the business and remuneration levels should be at least doubled in many cases in order to attract quality candidates in their forties and fifties.

A non-exec directorship certainly doesn't pay as handsomely as some think. Directorbank calculates that the average pay for a non-exec with an AIM-listed company is £25,000 and £40,000-£50,000 for a large plc, which Grünewald regards as "not an awful lot of money". Ford will be earning £45,000 for her Sainsbury role.

Maybe this is partly why Jones believes there is a problem finding good quality non-execs. He has in the past expressed an interest in setting up a company specialising in recruiting people who could be trained as non-executive directors. These people could then be offered to major shareholders as possible candidates to sit on the boards of the companies in which shareholders have invested.

Ian Davies, MD of Independent Director and a visiting fellow at Cranfield University where his special interest is non-executives, set up just such a company, which has helped recruit a number of senior people to non-executive roles at a variety of companies including cider company Merrydown and meat producer Lloyd Maunder.

He says he is just as likely to help place non-execs in private companies as in quoted companies as they increasingly seek to operate to high corporate governance standards.

Roger Partington, non-executive director at privately owned Grampian Country Food Group, says: "It's not quite as rigid for Grampian as it is for a FTSE-100 company but even small private companies are now meeting corporate governance criteria."

Davies has noticed an increase in women registering an interest in such a role. He says they are finally being considered as serious candidates and employers are increasingly encouraging them to gain additional experience this way. Another trend is companies taking a more structured approach with their non-execs, providing training and an induction programme.

For many non-execs, this responsibility has begun to extend beyond corporate governance. "At the largest listed companies it may still only be about compliance but most companies are now looking more at a strategic role for non-execs," says Davies.

They are being appointed with an eye to specific skills - experience of roll-outs, overseas sourcing, logistics and distribution, or even branding.

Partington says: "They provide insight that the management would not normally have. Different disciplines bring a variety of opinions to the board. In a large company it can help the managers cover all areas."

At Grampian, the company has drawn on Partington's retail experience and branded marketing background. "It wanted my understanding of market segmentation and the end consumer. This is very different to a commodity business."

This utilisation of specific skills is also evident at smaller companies. Chris Attrill, non-exec at Oakdale Holdings, the owner of Oakdale ­Bakeries, says that he provides a mixture of finance and administrative experience, especially important because the company was involved in a management buy-out and required its non-execs to act as a counterbalance between the executives and the investor bank.

Attrill believes it is possible for non-execs at smaller companies such as Oakdale to have a material effect. "Non-executive directors that are sufficiently involved and devote sufficient time and are challenging to the executives can influence the day-to-day decision-making."

They can be a vital asset because they have the ability to look at issues "independently, coldly and non-emotionally as they are not involved in the cut and thrust of the business", he says.

It all sounds so great on paper. Whether Anna Ford will be able to bring such a business mind to bear at Sainsbury, remains to be seen