When Cancer Research UK announced the appointment of its first non-white chief executive, Harpal Kumar, last week, it was another sign that the voluntary sector is beginning to make progress on diversity.
Significant as the appointment is, however, there is still a mountain to climb. According to the NCVO, 93 per cent of voluntary sector staff are white. This roughly reflects the ethnic profile of the UK population as a whole, but not that of many of the communities that charities serve.
"Ethnic diversity within the voluntary sector has increased in the past two years," an NCVO spokeswoman says. "But the sector can do more."
Eighteen per cent of employees in the voluntary sector have a long-term disability, a proportion higher than in the private and public sectors.
But in big charities, disabled chief executives are almost non-existent.
Earlier this month, cerebral palsy charity Scope said that its acting chief executive, John Sparkes, who is not disabled, would fill the role permanently. The news caused disappointment among some disabled charities, which described it as a missed opportunity.
"For the sake of stability, and given our financial situation, the pragmatic decision was taken not to have a selection procedure this time," says Andy Rickell, executive director of diversity politics and planning at Scope.
"We are already on a trajectory where recruiting a disabled chief executive is not just an idea, but will soon become a reality.
"It's definitely a possibility that in the future the position of chief executive could be a reserved post. What we would not want is to recruit someone who fails, because that would just prove the doubters right. We have to be confident that we have found someone who could do it."
Last year, Third Sector published research showing that the chief executives of the top 50 fundraising charities were mostly white, middle class males without disabilities (22 March 2006). One year on, little has changed.
"The situation seems to have gone very flat," says Tom Flood, chief executive of BTCV, which put in an unsuccessful bid to Capacitybuilders for funding for an inquiry into sector diversity. "The funding climate itself needs to change," he adds. "Charities seem to be able to get money only for projects rather than for structural changes to organisations."
After Third Sector's survey, chief executives body Acevo set up an ethnic minorities leaders network. "The attention needs to be focused below chief executive level," says Nick Aldridge, director of strategy and communications at Acevo. "This is something the sector should be working on in unison."
Rickell agrees. "It is incumbent on the sector to make it happen, and it's pretty indefensible that nothing has been done," he says. "The duty to promote equality that exists in the public sector could be used by public funders to insist on diversity at all levels.
"Alternatively, it's something that the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights could investigate: it could require all organisations that receive public funding to have a proactive approach to diversity."
Monoculturual trustee boards
The composition of charity boards may explain the tortoise-like progress.
Another Third Sector survey (16 August 2006) showed that 92 per cent of trustees are white and 1 per cent are black, and that there are more trustees aged over 75 than under 34. If the lack of diversity in the sector as a whole is seen as shocking, among trustees the problem is even worse.
The Charity Commission, Volunteering England and the Governance Hub launched the Get on Board campaign last year to bring in trustees from a wider variety of backgrounds.
"Representation on trustee boards is a real issue because that's where the decisions are made," says Rachel Whale, founder of Third Sector Women, a forum for existing and aspiring female chief executives. "The sector seems to take diversity more seriously when dealing with external affairs, namely beneficiaries. There seems to be a lot of talk and very little action."
One solution that might yield quicker results is positive discrimination.
Scope introduced reserved posts to help reach its target of recruiting 20 per cent of its workforce from the disabled community by the end of this year. The figure already stands at 19.9 per cent.
But not all charities are in favour. Orin Lewis, co-founder of the African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust, says: "What matters most when you are recruiting staff or trustees is not their ethnicity, but whether they are the right person for the job."
Flood agrees: "You don't necessarily need to have direct experience of an issue, but you do need to be able to empathise."