"A lot of talk but not much action": Are charities finally ready to tackle institutional racism?

Against a global groundswell of support for Black Lives Matter, is the third sector finally ready to move from passive conversations about diversity, to being actively anti-racist?

Image Credit: Guy Smallman / Getty Images
Image Credit: Guy Smallman / Getty Images

When George Floyd was killed in custody on 25 May, it could have been another moment of American police brutality to pass largely without incident or recognition. But after the harrowing video footage that showed white police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck went viral on social media, it sparked protests in all 50 states of the US and rapidly invoked what the political activist Angela Davis described as a “global challenge to racism and the consequences of slavery and colonialism”. The anti-racism movement Black Lives Matter UK raised more than £750,000 in six days; in London people broke the Covid-19 lockdown to march on Whitehall; statues of slavers were pulled down. 

“I look upon the reaction to George Floyd’s death with fascination,” Kunle Olulode, chief executive of the black and minority ethnic advocacy charity Voice4Change England says. He remembers travelling on a packed coach from London to Wolverhampton in the late 1980s to protest the death of Clinton McCurbin, a young black man who died of asphyxiation in police custody after visiting a Next store with an allegedly stolen credit card. 

“These things have happened here and have not been met with the same global, even national response,” Olulode says. “We seem to be going through a period where race has become a more highlighted issue in every single aspect of society.” 

In June, a swathe of charities published statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and asserted their commitments to fighting racism. The question now is whether the voluntary and not-for-profit sector is ready to confront the inequality and discrimination that exists within its own walls and, finally, to create genuine change. 

Institutionally racist charities 

Institutional racism is as prevalent in the charity sector as any other walk of life. Its presence feels jarring given the implicit perception of voluntary and not-for-profit organisations as places explicitly created to do good, but you never have to look far to uncover it. 

While numerous studies show that institutional racism subjects marginalised groups to persistent disadvantages across education, health, employment and more, there remains a profound lack of representation of people of colour in the charitable organisations that seek to address these inequalities. Although 14 per cent of the UK population is composed of people who come from a black, Asian, or minority ethnic background, fewer than one in 10 voluntary sector employees come from BAME backgrounds, a statistic that sets the third sector behind both the public and private sectors in terms of representation. 

Leadership teams and charity boards are even less diverse, with 2018 research from the diversity and inclusion agency Inclusive Boards finding that just 5.3 per cent of people working in senior leadership were from BAME backgrounds. Third Sector’s most recent survey of diversity on the leadership teams and trustee boards of 50 fundraising charities, run every three years, has also found the overall proportion of senior managers who identify as black, Asian or a member of another minority ethnic community (10 per cent) has not increased since the survey was last conducted in 2017

The consequences of disproportionately white leadership can be found in the ways charities behave. There have been repeated criticisms in recent years of organisations raising funds by playing into poverty porn narratives involving people of colour, often without their consent, that reinforce both harmful stereotypes and perceptions of them as victims in need of benevolent white support. On occasion charities have also been accused of entrenching racial biases around their service users, such as the “reductive” and “horribly racist” Citizens’ Advice training guidance that made headlines in 2019 for listing “barriers [found] in BAME Communities” as including “low levels of literacy” and “a cultural focus on honour and shame”.

These are not new issues. Yet a compelling report published in June by Acevo and Voice4Change England – Home Truths: Undoing Racism and Delivering Real Diversity in the Charity Sector – gives another stark insight into the glacial progress charities have made towards acting on racism and building genuine diversity. “There are some aspects of the discourse around race at the moment that, if I’m blunt, I find quite unsavoury,” Olulode says. “We should have higher expectations of the sector.” 

That the third sector is falling behind the private sector in terms of racial progression is “extraordinary”, he adds. “There has been a lot of talk but not much action.” 

If the data paints a grim picture, the experiences and stories shared by people of colour who work in charities are even more sobering. More than two-thirds of the 489 people of colour surveyed for Home Truths said they had witnessed or experienced racism in their workplaces. In early June the anti-racism campaign network CharitySoWhite published a Twitter thread of anecdotes shared with them by people of colour working in charities at the peak of the recent Black Lives Matter movement.

“[My] white manager [told] a Zoom call of staff to not let the ‘hot topic of racism’ take focus away from the important issues right now,” one person shared. “A white director [responded] to a request for support of black staff with: ‘well, racial injustice isn’t going anywhere’,” said another.

Saba Shafi, a founding organiser of CharitySoWhite, says the sheer volume of messages the organisation received “was so severe that within a couple of days our committee had to take it in turns to manage our social media because of the vicarious trauma our members were experiencing by reading these examples of how complicit the sector is”.

And although Shafi feels the recent groundswell around Black Lives Matter is the first time she has seen the charity sector “respond en masse to any real moment of systemic racism”, and some organisations have taken the time to show empathy and understanding, she remains cautious about the general motives behind the groundswell of social media support. 

“My concern is that the response was driven from a place of needing to respond because Black Lives Matter was tidal-waving across social media and there was an expectation that organisations had to respond from a PR perspective, as opposed to reflecting on what it means,” she says. 

Derek Bardowell, a philanthropy adviser and host of the Just Cause podcast, agrees: “The reality is that people are starting to shift in terms of mindset because it converges with white interest. This has always been the problem with the third sector: it doesn’t respond to anything with any great haste unless there is bad publicity attached.”

Derek Bardowell, photographed by Charlie Hopkinson 

If charities are to commit to pursuing genuine equality, it means becoming actively anti-racist, something experts feel has not been a priority for the majority of the sector before now. “If organisations are going to respond with integrity, it means taking the conversation and joining it from your organisation to a bigger systemic world,” Shafi says.  

It takes more than diversity and inclusion 

Diversity and inclusion programmes are not the answer to this conversation, experts warn. “I have been very clear that the discourse about equality, diversity and inclusion has obscured a more profound discussion around anti-racism,” Olulode says. “It became a kind of lingua franca around how the sector has that discussion, which I found odd.” 

It’s understandable, he adds, that a lot of people, “particularly the BAME leaders and staff we talk to, express weariness at the perennial discussions around diversity, and how they had heard the same discourse over 20 years but nothing had changed”.

For Wanda Wyporska, executive director of socioeconomic equality charity the Equality Trust, the homogeneity of charity leadership (more than 40 of the 50 charities surveyed by Third Sector are run by white chief executives) in part boils down to stereotypes of “what leadership looks like”. She says: “If you think about a charity chief executive, you are not necessarily thinking about an Asian woman in a sari. This is an underlying problem.

“It can be ‘acceptable’ to have a black leader of an equality organisation or an Asian woman leading a domestic violence organisation. But pigeonholing in these ways is not helpful, and even with bigger charities there’s a simplistic assumption that if you have a black leader then everything is sorted. That’s not the answer.” 

When people speak to her about diversity, she says, she often finds herself asking what it is they really want. “I think ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ are horrid terms in a sense, much like BAME, which I think is a useless term – what are you saying you want?” she challenges. Genuine inclusion, she adds, means abandoning processes such as recruiting candidates for organisational “fit”, looking outside the usual networks when bringing new team members on board, and intersecting conversations about race with other factors, such as class. 

“If you want more black faces in your organisation, you still risk ending up with only black middle-class faces, or black faces who all went to Oxbridge,” she says. “If you actually want people who have been service users in the past working in your organisation, you have to change your approach.”

Wanda Wyporska, executive director of The Equality Trust 

Specific mechanisms that can be implemented to disrupt racial biases at the recruitment stage include committing to blind CVs that strip out identifying candidate data, using competency-based hiring techniques rather than looking for “fit” and explicitly encouraging applications from people of colour, which also means looking holistically at the ways wider institutional racism might have affected the education and career progression of these candidates. 

But changing recruitment practices will only help to bring people of colour through the door: making sure their working environment is not a hostile one also demands that internal diversity and inclusion training is disrupted. “Hire trainers who work through an anti-oppressive lens,” Shafi advises. “Not just equity, diversity and inclusion experts, but people who will give staff training in actual anti-racist work and analyse any line of difference, including speaking about power and privilege.” 

Jacqueline Onalo is a human rights lawyer, diversity and inclusion expert and coach who became a trustee at Comic Relief in early 2019 and has been leading on its anti-racism work over the past year. The charity has a chequered history when it comes to racial injustice, having been at the heart of several “white saviour” rows over its approach to fundraising. Yet it is one of the few charities in Third Sector’s survey to have increased its BAME representation across both its executive team and trustee board since 2017.

“I joined Comic Relief as a trustee around the time of the Stacey Dooley uproar, which was at that point a concern for how it would affect my own brand,” Onalo says. “But I have always strongly felt that, if you have the agency to make change, you should do the work.”

Having initially worked with the charity on a consultancy basis to address race inequality in 2018, Onalo has been heavily involved in changing the organisation’s culture to make it more inclusive. The charity consulted with staff using surveys to gain a picture of its D&I landscape, and identified six core areas where interventions were necessary. “Progression in the organisation, people feeling safe to speak up and deal with microaggressions, representation,” Onalo lists. 

Comic Relief will shortly be launching its new D&I strategy across the organisation. As well as making a public commitment to tackling racial injustice, it held an internal discussion with more than 120 members of staff, led by Onalo and the charity’s chief executive discussing what it means to be anti-racist in the wake of George Floyd’s death. The charity is also beginning to review its approach to the ways it uses storytelling to raise funds and recently ringfenced more than £3m in emergency Covid-19 funding for 10 BAME-led organisations. 

“Once you diversify your boards you are leading from the top, but remember that diversity is just numbers,” Onalo says. “The numbers [at Comic Relief] are right, but now we have to deal with the bigger piece, which is the Black Lives Matter movement and talking about race, inclusion and treatment.”

Jacqueline Onalo, diversity and inclusion expert and trustee at Comic Relief

Don’t wait for the data  

For diversity and inclusion to work, then, it has to operate alongside a fundamental and sustained shift in mindset when it comes to thinking – and speaking frankly – about race. For example, the Black Lives Matter solidarity statement issued by the leadership team of Save the Children UK (see below) that explicitly acknowledges the harm “that continues to be caused by racism” in their organisation and their collective responsibility to tackle it.

For Shafi, there is a pressing need to stop making conversations about race and racial inequality palatable. “We need to stop trying to sanitise our language,” she says. “We are fighting inequality and yet we keep trying to make everybody feel good. Let’s not pretend to ourselves that this is anything other than a fight. People are literally dying [due to structural racism], so why are we spending so much time making people feel comfortable?”

Save The Children UK: “The harm caused by racism in our organisation is a threat to our mission”

In a statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement published in June, the leadership team of Save the Children UK outlined five actionable targets the charity would meet as part of its work to become an anti-racist organisation. 

“The harm that has been caused – and continues to be caused – by racism in our organisation is a threat to that mission and an affront to our values,” the leadership team wrote. “We acknowledge the institutional racism that exists within the charity sector and our organisation and affirm our commitment to using our power as leaders to tackle both.”

Targets include publishing diversity data every six months and sharing the charity’s ethnicity pay gap on its website with a commitment to narrowing it by the end of the year. 

The leadership team has also committed to a leadership programme for communities that are under-represented in the organisation “without depending on the labour of black colleagues and colleagues of colour” and ensuring its policies and practices “create the conditions for racism and microaggressions to be resolved”. 

The charity will also review its external impact through an anti-racist lens, including removing “white saviourism and the white gaze from... communications about our international work”, testing whether its programming and influencing work is “actively dismantling white supremacy” and exploring whether its volunteering offer is a fully inclusive one. 

“The idea that the work you do can actively cause harm is an overwhelming feeling, but not as overwhelming as racism, so you have to get over it,” says Kirsty McNeil, director of policy, advocacy and campaigns at the charity. “We have a hundred years of unlearning to do. Dismantling and unpacking it will be the work of our careers.”

A major aspect of CharitySoWhite’s work to date has been platforming uncomfortable conversations and shining a spotlight on explicit racist and discriminatory behaviours when they occur in the sector. This ranges from calling out organisations for racist behaviours to creating “emotional labour invoices” for people of colour to send to their white allies, and its social media campaign delivering emoji “cookies” to organisations and individuals it feels have made performative responses to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“I know that we are not on top of everyone’s Christmas card lists, but in a sector where people of colour, or those who identify as BAME, felt welcome and celebrated CharitySoWhite would not be as big as we are,” Shafi says. 

“So many people who reach out to us feel alone: they don’t feel safe speaking about what is happening in their places of work. If companies were really worried about inclusivity and championing the work of BAME people, they would be facilitating these conversations.” 

A number of the recommendations made by Home Truths focus on creating a clearer accountability framework for tackling racial injustice in the sector: calling on organisations to report publicly on internal D&I targets and ethnicity pay gap data each year, integrate explicit race equity goals into their charitable work and develop independent third-party mechanisms for reporting and addressing racism in charities. For Olulode, these frameworks are crucial not just for holding organisations to account, but also for but the data they would return. “We can’t extrapolate the third sector’s problems from American society or even British society,” he says. 

Olulode acknowledges that many people pursuing data-led research are “getting hammered” by others in the sector “because it’s said we have loads of data and people aren’t acting on it”, but argues there is still a need to “help us establish what is unique about the charity and community sector”. Carrying out this work alongside education and anti-racism training will help to prevent the information from being “just another report”. 

Kunle Olulode, chief executive Voice4Change England

Organisations must also be ready to ask themselves uncomfortable questions about why there might be so few people of colour working for them, Shafi says. “The last time someone made a complaint about racial injustice in your workplace, did you make a change, or did you wait for that uncomfortable conversation to go away?” she asks. “Has there been a real, deep understanding and commitment that anything that is racist within the workplace will not be tolerated?

“Trying to fix inequalities while viewing them as intangible structures that have no connection to our actions is not going to work. We have to be honest with ourselves about where these inequalities come from and be ready to feel uncomfortable and ready for a fight.” 

Be ready to give up power 

Another word that surfaces repeatedly is “power”. 

“Despite that all the platitudes about ‘yes we must do better’, ‘yes we are soul searching’ and ‘yes we are all white’, what it really comes down to is are these people really willing to give up power themselves?” Wyporska asks. 

She points to the co-founder of the global online forum Reddit, Alexis Ohanian, who stepped down as a board member of the organisation in early June and called on his colleagues to elect a black board member in his place.

“These things can be done, but it’s how much people want to do it,” says Wyporska. 

Bardowell agrees: “We have to talk about people and privilege. Your lords and your baronesses sitting on the trustee boards are so absent from these conversations it’s frightening. 

“Then on the senior management team and chief executive level there’s a concern with status: they are unwilling to give up that power in part because it would invalidate much of their working careers and lives.” 

Nothing will change, he says, unless people at the very top levels of charities are prepared to make space for marginalised people and those with lived experience. “No one is saying give your power up completely,” he says. “We’re talking about walking side by side with communities and using their skillsets to make a stronger sector. But if things are to change, power must be handed over.” 

Bloody Good Period: “Be ready to get it wrong” 

One of the first steps to becoming an actively anti-racist organisation is that white leaders work through the feelings of discomfort and guilt that talking about racism evokes, and accept that the journey will inevitably be uncomfortable.

For Gabby Edlin, the founder and chief executive of period equity charity Bloody Good Period, building anti-racism and intersectionality (defined by academic Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the intersection and overlap of race, class, gender and other individual characteristics) into the fabric of her organisation was the only way it would be able to function.

“As someone who is Jewish, I know what it’s like to be an ‘other’, but I also know what it’s like to move through life benefiting from white privilege,” she says. “So I felt strongly the need – well, not to identify, but to empathise with what black people experience and therefore to do the work that it takes to change things. And if you are a white woman who works primarily with black women, you can’t ignore the race factor.”

Despite this, Edlin recalls being “a massive ball of fear” when she first began actively looking at how to build an anti-racist organsiation. “I was always reading about race and trying to talk about it, but we still had an all-white staff and an all-white trustee panel,” she remembers. “It was clear that my own racism had contributed to me choosing certain people.

“I got into a massive ball of fear, which I can see people in at the moment, and I do empathise. But you’ve just got to crack on. Sit with the discomfort. Take advice, and acknowledge it when you get things wrong. Say sorry and work to fix it.

“The generosity we are receiving at the moment from black people and people of colour should not be overlooked for a second by the charity sector. They have been telling us about this forever, and now they are telling us again.”

Working alone and in partnership with external organisations, Bloody Good
Period invests a “significant chunk” of time and money toward anti-racism work alongside supplying period products, “because if we’re not doing that, what’s the point?” Edlin asks.

“It’s hard, it really is, but you’re not doing this for yourself. You’re doing it because you believe in better. And if you don’t believe in doing better for everyone, I don’t know what you’re doing in charity in the first place.”

From words to action 

In the months since George Floyd was killed, the sector is still talking about race, thanks to the ongoing advocacy and pressure of organisations such as CharitySoWhite, the vital work of Voice4Change England and Acevo’s research, and the weariness of people of colour who have lived and worked in the sector for years and are frustrated with the lack of meaningful progress. 

“Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter have exposed what many of us in the sector were already aware of: the structural inequity underpinned by institutional racism,” Onalo says. “Now we must keep the momentum up.” 

Wyporska agrees. “There have been many wake-up calls, but this really is the most important time for charities to reassess,” she says. “Take stock, look at your power and ask yourself: if not now, when?” 

In early June Shafi wrote on Twitter that the weeks since Floyd’s death had brought “unbelievable sadness and unprecedented hope”, adding: “I believe that the charity sector can do better, but it’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be comfortable.” Without meaningful change, the sector as it stands cannot be fit for purpose, she concludes. 

And yet she does feel hope. It’s important, she says, that the sector is worried about allegations of racism: “if people are worried, they might take it seriously and think about their responses”. 

Above everything else, Shafi says, her hope lies with the people of colour working across charities and not-for-profits: “Their bravery and the steps they want to take, what they think we should be doing next. 

“It reminds me that we might be a small movement for now, but we are part of a bigger community that is beginning to come together and fight for a better and more inclusive sector.”

A note on the evolving nature of language

Third Sector is aware of the ongoing debate around the use of acronyms and phrases such as BAME and “people of colour”. We recognise concerns that such terms can be used in a blunt and lazy way to erase individual and community identities, and have sought to use them with care throughout this feature, taking a lead from the language used by the people we interviewed. We will continue to listen to this debate and be ready to evolve our language accordingly. 

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