The 2011 census revealed that 14 per cent of people living in the UK are non-white, with a higher proportion in some cities. In London, for example, 40 per cent of residents are non-white; in Birmingham the figure is 47 per cent.
The figures for the leadership of the top 50 fundraising charities, however, fall short of these proportions, according to research by Third Sector. In these charities, only 12 per cent of chief executives, 6 per cent of senior management team members and 8 per cent of trustees are non-white.
There is a more equal balance on gender, according to the research. Fifty per cent of the working age population and 56 per cent of people of state pension age are women; in the top 50 charities, the figure is 30 per cent among chief executives, 44 per cent among SMTs and 36 per cent among trustees.
Only 10 of the 50 charities were able to provide figures on disability. No chief executive has a disability; in 2006, when Third Sector last looked at the issue, one did have. Currently, 3 per cent of the 69 SMT members have disabilities and 17 per cent of 143 trustees.
Nineteen of the 50 charities surveyed have no non-white people on their top teams or trustee boards, according to the information gathered by Third Sector. These 19 are Save the Children, Mencap, the RNLI, the Royal British Legion, the RSPCA, the RSPB, St John Ambulance, the PDSA, Sue Ryder, Dogs Trust, the Alzheimer's Society, the Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity, WWF-UK, Shelter, BBC Children in Need, Jewish Care, Help for Heroes, Arthritis Research UK and Action on Hearing Loss. None of the three animal welfare charities in the top 50 have any non-white senior staff or trustees.
"Nothing in this research surprises me," says Tesse Akpeki, a consultant, facilitator and trainer working with the sector. "It's the same people, same outlook, same perspective, same, same, same. It might seem safe to bring in the same kinds of people that have always been brought in, but it doesn't lead to the right decisions being made.
"Research at Harvard and Stanford universities in the US showed that governance failures happened because non-diverse senior management teams were making the decisions. So there is a business case for diversity. Decisions might take a bit longer – because there's more debate, more conversations – but when decisions are arrived at they are balanced and they involve more informed risks. I think corporate organisations are actually better at recognising the business case for diversity – looking at their products and at the talent they need to sell them to their target audience."
Sanjiv Lingayah is a freelance researcher whose recent PhD is a study of the influence of black and multi-ethnic social sector organisations on race equality. He says the lack of diversity at the top of the biggest charities raises wider concerns than the quality of decision-making and governance.
"For me, unrepresentativeness is important as a moral issue," he says. "People come together in society to share risks and rewards. The data in this study and the wider data on race, gender and other forms of inequality show that BME people still face an employment and pay gap – and unequal treatment – even in the voluntary sector. We need to stop setting up some groups in society to fail."
Lingayah says government policy is to blame. "Policymakers have stepped back from the equalities agenda," he says. "For example, the Public Sector Equality Duty was scrutinised under the government's Red Tape Challenge and framed as bureaucracy, rather than an effort to allow talent to shine."
The Red Tape Challenge was launched in 2011 with a target of eliminating 3,000 regulations. In relation to equality, the Home Office said at the time: "Promoting equality and eliminating discrimination is a government priority, but regulation imposed on businesses should be proportionate and effective, and unnecessary bureaucracy should be removed."
Kunle Olulode, director of Voice4Change, a membership organisation that advocates for the BME voluntary and community sector, says that attainment in education has improved for young people from minority backgrounds, but "we need to ask some serious questions about why this is not being reflected in senior positions".
He thinks that an increasing expectation for job applicants to complete unpaid internships, sometimes lasting two or three years, is preventing many young BME people from entering third sector organisations because they cannot afford to. The failure of policymakers to implement minimum standards for internships creates a situation where only the privileged can afford to obtain essential experience, he says.
"The other day, I met a young woman of Danish and west African background," he says. "She speaks about four languages fluently. She is desperate to get a job in an NGO, but can't afford to work unpaid."
Olulode says it is essential that BME people working in the sector receive encouragement from above. "There has to be a connection between the people in power and those with a desire to develop their careers," he says. "This means talent-spotting, taking the time to develop people with a view to pushing them up to senior roles. We're losing talented people who are interested and want to develop careers because the support is not there."
Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo's and one of the six non-white leaders in the top 50, cites the culture of volunteering as a route to employment as another reason for the lack of diversity. "The volunteering route is a great source of highly committed people," he says. "But when you look at the lack of diversity in the volunteer workforce, it's not surprising that it then translates into employment profiles.
"Charities are full of well-intentioned people who are deeply committed to doing the right thing – more so than in any other sector I've worked in. But these good intentions aren't always focused on the need for a diverse workforce. I don't believe there is any inherent prejudice in this; it's more about an unintentional ignorance of the added value that a more representative workforce can offer.
"Diversity needs to be a strategic priority as recruitment, selection and delivery plans are developed. Person specifications need to recognise the value that diverse communities bring into specific roles and, more broadly, into an organisation – whether this is in terms of their ethnicity, cultural heritage, linguistic talents and so on."
Joe Saxton, co-founder of the sector consultancy nfpSynergy, agrees with Olulode and Khan that the tone needs to be set at the top. "You need to get the best people in at junior and middle ranks and then work like crazy to promote them," he says. "Recruiting from within – simply by saying to someone 'I think that you would be great in this role' – could encourage people into jobs they never would apply for if they saw them advertised."
What about quotas? "People need to see role models, but I don't think quotas are a good idea," says Saxton. "They often just invite accusations of tokenism." Akpeki agrees. "I don't think quotas are helpful; they can, actually, be unhelpful," she says.
But Sanjiv Lingayah disagrees. "I believe preferential policies for groups that face disadvantage are justified, but this is somehow seen as much more controversial than the existing set of biases that typically favour educated, middle-to-high-income, heterosexual men," he says.
"Quotas should be on the table and those that don't want them should justify and demonstrate how less radical alternatives would meaningfully help to equalise life chances. Given the stubbornness of race and gender inequality, I think that the ball is in the court of those who resist preferential policies to assist disadvantaged groups."
What else can be done? Akpeki thinks individuals must play a part in their own career prospects. "It's very easy to be passive, but people need to take responsibility too," she says. "Sometimes I think that people from minority backgrounds can feel like victims. That will not get us anywhere – we need to commit to our own progress.
"Overall, I think there is a lack of diversity because it's not an easy thing to do. As human beings, we are comfortable around people like us. Reaching out to difference is difficult, so it gets put on the back burner. Or, when funding is cut, it's the first thing to go."
Disabled representation: 'We need practical steps'
Only 10 of the top 50 charities responded with information about disability. At these charities, there are two senior management members with disabilities, out of a total of 69 people: 3 per cent. Of the 143 trustees, a much higher proportion – 17 per cent – have disabilities.
According to the 2011 census, 16 per cent of working-age adults in the UK have disabilities, rising to 45 per cent of adults over the state pension age. Some of the top 50 charities that reported disabilities in their teams were charities that deal with disability, reflecting their specific priorities rather than a general improvement in accessibility and recruitment for the disabled.
Susan Daniels, chief executive of the National Deaf Children's Society – which is outside the top 50 and has an income of £20m – recommends a range of practical measures for increasing disability diversity in the charity workforce, ranging from creating an accessible working environment to putting in place special recruiting initiatives.
"We must open up opportunities and internships so that disabled candidates can experience a wide range of roles," says Daniels, who is deaf. "We also need fast-track programmes, management training that is aimed at specific groups and networking sessions aimed at those with specific characteristics."
Charities often expect applicants to have completed work experience and internships, she says: "There is an increasing focus on experience rather than potential, which becomes a vicious circle for deaf and disabled applicants. It is difficult for young deaf people to obtain work experience because the government funding programme Access to Work does not cover voluntary work, which for many is an entry into paid work. This can lead to a lack of opportunity and experience in a range of different settings that employers look for."