Making diversity count: what are the barriers?

In May, ACEVO and Voice4Change England launched the research project Making Diversity Count in response to the evident lack of equality, diversity and inclusion in the charity sector. Although there is growing interest in tackling the issue, the statistics tell the story: fewer than one in 10 voluntary sector employees (9%) are from BAME (Black, Asian and Minoritised Ethnic) backgrounds, a lower proportion than both the public and private sectors (both at 11%) and a lower proportion than the UK population as a whole (14%). There is even less racial diversity at executive and non-executive leadership level in charities (between 5% and 8%).

As part of Making Diversity Count project, we have conducted an online survey, interviews with white and BAME leaders and workers, and roundtables with charity sector ‘system-shapers’ and racial justice activists. The online survey, which asked BAME people working in different capacities in the charity sector – including as trustees, employees and interns –  about their experiences working in the sector received over 600 responses.

This blog summarises some of the problems and barriers identified in the project’s literature review. You can read the full summary of this area of the literature review here. Over the following months, we will be analysing all the data we have received and releasing a further instalment outlining some of the solutions the literature identified, before writing the final report. If you have any further questions about the literature review, please get in touch with Maisie.

What does the literature show?

We explored a range of reports and articles, mostly from the charity sector and some from beyond. They pointed to several broad themes, crucially showing that the lack of diversity in the sector has multiple causes, and requires multi-faceted solutions.

Firstly and fundamentally, there is no consensus on what the terms – diversity, inclusion and equality – mean, either in a general sense and specifically for the charity sector. One helpful way of thinking about these terms and the relationship between them is suggested by Chow (2018) who states that diversity is a number – that shows the absence/presence of certain populations in the sector; inclusion is a behaviour – opening up an organisation so that all can participate fully; and equality is an intended and desired outcome or goal that can drive efforts at diversity and inclusion. However, this understanding is not widespread resulting in a focus on diversifying workforces with less energy behind long-term structural and cultural change and/or less of a vision-driven impetus behind change.

There is also a commonly expressed view that white charity sector staff are uncomfortable discussing ‘race’. There appears to be some fear (including among leaders) about using the wrong language or causing offence and this can lead to inaction. Although this discomfort is perhaps understandable given the uncertainty on these issues, there is a risk that it provides cover for deeper problems or for not instigating change. This points to a need to build understanding about how race, privilege and whiteness intersect and for white charity sector staff to get more comfortable with discomfort as a prerequisite for taking challenging action.

Relatedly, some steps being taken are not going far enough from the outset. The sector has begun working to include people with lived experience, but Sandhu (2017) shows that these people are embedded as marginal, not central. Individuals with lived experience are rarely in leadership roles, and when included they are not involved in high-level strategy or decision making, but in some kind of advisory position. In other words, diversity counts but only in limited ways – leading to accusations of tokenism. Meaningful change means that ‘diverse’ groups need to be central to change agendas including as leaders of change.

Leadership is critical: charity CEOs have a huge role to play. However, the literature shows that senior leadership of charities is particularly non-diverse, meaning the individuals with disproportionate influence on organisational culture are distanced from this issue. CEO concerns include organisational reputation if they get things ‘wrong’.  CEOs have a disproportionate influence on organisational cultures, and the literature shows that there is a lack of recognition that there is a culture of racism at play in charities. Charitable organisations are also able to take cover behind the idea that they are the ‘good guys’, which can lead to denials about racism in the sector and dilute action even though evidence suggests that casual discrimination, bias and exclusion have become embedded and normalised in some charitable organisations.

What next?

There is no single, straightforward solution to these barriers. Many of the blockages are fundamental. A lack of understanding about terms such as diversity, inclusion and equality and how they relate and interact is an inbuilt constraint to change. Improving understanding and defining a shared approach to and vision of racial diversity, inclusion and equality in the charity sector will be required to provide strong foundations for meaningful change.

It is clear that the change necessary will require a newfound boldness as well as time, money and motivation. The sector needs to reconsider its priorities and think about how much it really cares about racial diversity, inclusion and equality. Finally, and critically, the scale of the change needed means that the experiences and knowledge of BAME people in the charity sector must be at the centre of this agenda.

You can download the extended summary of the literature review here. In the coming months, a second instalment outlining some of the proposed solutions so far will be released, followed by the final report in spring 2020.

Key reports

brap (2018) Let’s talk about race: civil society and race equality: Civil Society Futures Inquiry

Chow, B. (2018) From words to action: a practical philanthropic guide to diversity, equity and inclusion: GrantCraft

Memon, A. and Wyld, G. (2018) Walking the talk on diversity: what is holding the charity sector back from putting words into action?: New Philanthropy Capital

Sandhu, B. (2017) The value of lived experience in social change: the need for leadership and organisational development in the social sector: Clore Social Leadership Programme

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

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