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To undo racism and deliver racial justice in the charity sector we need culture change

Dr Sanjiv Lingayah, lead author of Home Truths, highlights three areas where we as a charity sector need to grow if we are to make a decisive switch from discussing DEI to delivering it.

Home Truths: Undoing racism and delivering real diversity in the charity sector is a new report from ACEVO and Voice4Change England. The report finds that Black, Asian and Minoritised Ethnic (BAME) people in the charity sector are subject to racism and antagonism not faced by white colleagues.

The Home Truths online survey for BAME charity people shows that close to 70% had either experienced, witnessed or heard stories about racism in the charity sector. As a consequence, efforts to increase BAME presence in the charity sector must go hand in hand with measures to ensure that BAME people in the sector are fully supported and are unimpeded by discrimination.

Real progress on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the charity sector requires a change of culture and power dynamics so that the sector as a whole can relate to BAME people and populations in new and positive ways. Amongst the report’s recommendations is that charities make racial equity a focus of their external work – so that they ‘show up’ for the cause of racial justice in the outside world as well as setting meaningful internal DEI targets.

Further report findings and recommendations are laid out in this companion blog from ACEVO CEO Vicky Browning. Here, I want to highlight three areas where we as a charity sector need to grow if we are to make a decisive switch from discussing DEI to delivering it.

First, talk of racism can be uncomfortable and cause anxiety for some white people. For example, if racism is part of our social arrangements then it brings into question the achievements of some white people. This in turn may disrupt the positive image that an individual has of their sector, organisation or themselves. Discomfort and anxiety can lead to a ‘fight or flight’ response, manifesting in emotions such as anger, fear and guilt. It can also make BAME people who raise the issue of racism, rather than racism itself, into the problem. This is supported by our online survey finding that just 20% of BAME charity respondents who had made complaints about racism felt that these were dealt with satisfactorily.

A second area for growth is that delivering DEI and racial justice in and through the charity sector is getting used to the idea that this is a long game. Transformation is possible but there are no shortcuts.

Furthermore, solutions for racism and the path to meaningful DEI requires multiple simultaneous interconnected actions. As a result, Home Truths contains 15 recommendations that span the sector collectively (including charities, infrastructure bodies, funders and regulators), organisational policy, charity leaders as well as funders.

Many of the recommendations are significant and perhaps long term in their own right. One example is shifting the charity sector (and society more generally) so that there is widespread understanding that racism is normalised – not exceptional – as well as systemic and institutionalised. With this understanding in place it becomes more feasible to turn decisively with scope and scale to action for racial justice and DEI.

A third area for development is for those with power inside the sector to be radically more inclusive and open to those outside. One insight from our research appears to be that ‘performance’ in the charity sector may be particularly reliant on the quality of networks and relationships. This may encourage the hiring of ‘clubbable’ people – those who are perceived to ‘fit in’. And this can entrench problems not only of a lack of racial and ethnic diversity but also reinforce the positions of men and middle and upper-middle-class people (especially at senior levels) in the sector.

Moving on these three fronts – overcoming and sitting with discomfort, committing to long-term action and building radical inclusivity – requires a significant shift in culture within the sector.

This level of transformation is not easily secured but it is within reach. More than that, if we take a look at the world in these tumultuous times, we need the charities and charity leaders to hear – to really hear – the home truths about the sector. And we need the charity sector to live up to its highest values and to be at the fully engaged in the pursuit of racial justice.

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