Kai Adams: How to address the challenge of diversity

A recent survey showed that third sector workforces were less diverse than those in the private sector, but there are steps charities can take to improve this, writes our recruitment expert

Kai Adams
Kai Adams

As a headhunter, one of the most interesting aspects of my work is observing senior managers as they look for solutions to the challenges their charities face. 

With dramatic changes to funding, increasingly tough commissioning climates, greater public scrutiny of charity activity and, bluntly, less money, change is everywhere. But the exception seems to be in the sector’s approach to recruitment. In this regard charities are too often taking the advice they have always taken and getting the results they have always got; and this is particularly true when addressing the question of diversity.

Recruiting a workforce with a broad range of experiences, opinions and education will enable an organisation to meet its current demands and face those that might be coming down the line. More visible diversity – in age, gender, ethnicity, religion, culture or sexual orientation – is a great indicator of this potential to think differently. 

Carried out in autumn 2014, Green Park’s diversity survey of the UK's public and charity sectors brought some interesting results. It found that charities were remarkably gender diverse when compared with FTSE 100 companies, but it also revealed a paucity of female chief executives, particularly in the largest charities. And it discovered that, when it comes to ethnic and cultural representation, charities were less diverse than the private sector.

Whatever the majority of charities are doing to recruit from a broader and more diverse base doesn’t seem to be working in the medium term, so it’s critical that they review long-standing recruitment practices and try to look at what they’re doing from different points of view. Just because things appear to be fine in your organisation now does not mean you shouldn’t shake things up to ensure it is better prepared for the future.

As well as holding recruitment partners or advisers to greater account, here are a few thoughts on how to address the challenge of diversity within your charity.

Measure the make-up of your current workforce It’s all very well saying that more diversity is required, but what exactly do you mean by this? If you know what you have, you know how to alter and improve it. Identify skills and experience gaps, consider whether or not a better gender balance would be appropriate and question whether you are lacking in ethnic diversity. If a basic understanding of what you want to change does not exist, it won’t be possible to plan strategically.

Undertake plenty of research Is your charity representative of the people it works with? Talk to your beneficiaries to find out. It is easy for charities to become complacent about how well they represent their service users, but in reality trustees and head-office staff often don’t spend time in the field or seek to understand how projects work on the ground. Use focus groups to canvass the views of your own staff and volunteers, and find out whether they are clear about the charity’s reason for being.  

Do you need to bring in new recruits? Look at where you have a diversity of talent and where it is lacking. If you have sufficient visible and cognitive diversity at ground level, find out what it would take for these people to rise up through the ranks and ensure that you are developing and nurturing your staff adequately. This will create improved diversity at a senior level further down the road.

Think about including an independent member on your appointment panel Look out for signs of group-think on your recruitment panel. If all the members are thinking about a future appointment in exactly the same way, it can be helpful to find someone from a different organisation who has been through a recruitment challenge that is similar to yours and ask them to critique the process. Look for someone who is disruptive in a good sense and can shed new light on a situation.

Think broadly and bravely Consider not only those people who are moving up inside your own organisation or those coming from another charity, but also the stream of talent from outside the sector. If you want greater diversity, this is a great way to change the make-up of your normal catchment area. Where possible, stick with this decision rather than eliminating all of the public and private sector candidates in the shortlist. This provides you with a chance to test your own assumptions.

We find that the closer clients get to making an appointment, the more common it is that people become risk-averse and end up appointing someone whose style and attitude they find familiar. This isn’t always a bad thing, but you must be confident that the process has been as open and critically minded as possible when the decision is finally made.

Kai Adams is head of charities & social enterprise practice at the executive search firm Green Park

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