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Equality, Diversity & Inclusion in Charities - Home Truths & High Expectations

on Friday, 10 July 2020.

In the weeks since the horrific death of George Floyd and subsequent protests, many charity leadership teams have spent a great deal of time reflecting on inequalities in the charity sector and society as a whole. The issue is not a new one.

Complaints have been made about the lack of diversity among charity trustees and staff since the days when I could expect to be the youngest person in the boardroom as well as the only person of colour. To take just three:

  • In 1993, Third Sector magazine reported in a piece called 'The great, the good and the white' that only 2% of voluntary organisations in England and Wales had a black trustee.
  • In Building on Trust, their 1995 study of trustees for NCVO, Naomi Sargant and Kate Kirkland found that, 'the stereotype of trustees being white, middle-class, middle-aged and male is largely true.'
  • In 1995, Andrew Hind concluded in the book from which I have drawn the above references, The Governance and Management of Charities, that:

 'One is forced to conclude - when faced with the evidence - that the voluntary sector has to do better.'

So, Has Anything Changed?

Perhaps the tone has changed. There is certainly a sense of urgency in some quarters, at least for now, and many organisations have published ambitious aspirational statements about their commitment to make our society a better place - and are beginning to develop the action plans necessary to make those aspirations a reality. However, there was a good deal of urgency about protests and campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s (and no doubt before that). Yet decades later we are still 'forced to conclude … that the voluntary sector has to do better'.

It is not yet clear whether the attention these issues currently enjoy will be sustained for long enough to deliver the fundamental change that is needed. Boards will differ in how far they feel their charities have a role in this process. What feels clear to me from the client calls I have taken over the last few weeks, is that many people working in, or interested in, the sector have been led to expect real change. While the position of charities will differ, all trustees should be considering these issues, otherwise they may be ill-equipped to respond to demands for action from the charity's staff or the people it serves.

What Should Trustees Be Considering? - 'Listen, Reflect and Decide'

Trustees should make time to reflect and determine the charity's strategy on issues of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), because:

  • as outlined above, the high level of expectation and the close public scrutiny at present means this is an important issue for most charities
  • it is important that the charity's operational staff have a clear framework to work to
  • it is important that any decisions made address the issues for charities holistically, rather than focusing separately on particular operational areas

The trustees' deliberations should take place within the usual framework of responsibilities outlined in the Charity Commission's guidance note on charity trustees and decision making (CC27).

That is likely to include:

Acting Prudently - Key Risks

Trustees are expected to exercise sound judgment, avoiding undue risk and not over-committing. They should ensure they understand the risks and issues their charity is likely to encounter in securing EDI and that the action plans they agree can be properly resourced to meet those needs as part of the charity's work in furtherance of its objects.

Language and Scope

One factor that makes conversations about racism and EDI difficult is that those involved may have very different understandings and levels of ambition as to what EDI work can and should achieve - or even whether the term itself is appropriate. The campaign group which emerged from the hashtag #CharitySoWhite is clear that 'this isn't a conversation about diversity and inclusion, it is a conversation about power and privilege' and say 'we speak about and value lived experience over data'. Many trustees and managers will be unsure how to contribute to this conversation, particularly where they do not have lived experience of discrimination to draw on. To avoid setting these discussions up to fail, the terms of reference need to be agreed at an early stage.

Involvement and Co-Delivery 

Trustees will need to consider how best to ensure Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff and beneficiaries are adequately involved in shaping the organisation's work on EDI. This will involve balancing the desire to centrally co-ordinate their response with the need to involve interested people beyond the board. Options for doing so could include the establishment of an advisory group, or groups with no formal standing or powers under the charity's constitution or a formally constituted committee. However the group is established, it should have clear terms of reference to avoid mission drift, or a mismatch between the expectations of the group and the expectations of the board of trustees. We have encountered several instances where the high expectations of such groups were not met by the charity concerned and disputes arose as a result.

What Can Trustees Be Doing Now?

In considering EDI issues, trustees will need to act decisively to address the fear that they will simply producing more reports without meaningful change. In doing so, they will need to ensure that the work done is sufficiently considered and robust to reduce the risk that decisions will be swayed by a perceived risk of reputational damage at a time when issues of EDI are prominent and the expectations are correspondingly high. Trustees, and the leadership team as a whole, will need to be ready to explain and if necessary defend the steps they propose if, for example:

  • staff or beneficiaries suggest that the organisation has a profound problem with racism, or
  • vocal members / supporters criticise steps taken by the organisation to address EDI or respond to the national conversation about Black Lives Matter

For support with your charity's strategy on issues of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, please contact Shivaji Shiva in our Charities team on 07788 313 298, or complete the form below.

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