Diversity study: Has the picture changed?

Three years after Third Sector last completed its diversity study among major charities, the conversations might have evolved but have the numbers? Rebecca Cooney reports

In the three years since Third Sector last completed its diversity study, relatively little has changed at the top of the 50 featured fundraising charities.

The proportion of chief executives who identify as black, Asian, minority ethnic or "other" (rather than white) has risen only slightly from 12 per cent in 2017 to 16 per cent today, while the proportion of other senior leaders from BAME backgrounds remains static at 10 per cent. For trustees, the numbers have risen from 10 to 15 per cent.

Similarly, women represent 54 per cent of senior leaders, up just 5 percentage points from 2017 - while female representation among trustees has remained at 41 per cent.

The percentages for trustees and senior managers do not include the handful of charities in the sample of 50 that declined to supply the data for these areas.

There has been some movement among chief executives in relation to gender, with the proportion of female chief executives jumping to 40 per cent from 30 per cent. However, women make up 68 per cent of the charity workforce, according to the most recent National Council for Voluntary Organisations Almanac, so it’s fair to say that women are still significantly underrepresented in charity leadership.

This is even starker among women from BAME backgrounds. Amanda Mukwashi, who took over as chief executive of Christian Aid in 2018, became the first woman of colour to appear on the charity chief executive list since Third Sector first began running its diversity study in 2014. It is progress, yes, but not exactly speedy.

Saranel Benjamin, director of women’s rights and gender justice at Oxfam, says women of colour are often overlooked when assessing diversity. When she was appointed in September, Benjamin became the first woman of colour on the Oxfam GB senior leadership team, a step that “took a long time”, she says.

“The pace of change is a little frustrating,” she says. “We are moving in the right direction, which is good to see, but I still think there still needs to be stronger accountability mechanisms to hold those charities to account for their representation.”

While the numbers have been slow to change, arguably what has shifted is the conversation around diversity. Following the safeguarding scandal in 2018, the birth of CharitySoWhite in 2019 and the renewed intensity of the Black Lives Matter protests this year, diversity has gone from being a “nice-to-have” to being recognised as essential.

And as the cover feature of the most recent edition of Third Sector noted, there is a pressing need for the voluntary and not-for-profit sector “to confront the inequality and discrimination that exists within its own walls and, finally, create genuine change”.

Reflecting wider society

People from BAME backgrounds make up 14 per cent of the population of the UK as a whole, while women make up slightly more than 50 per cent - so in individual organisations, are these two groups represented at or above a level in line with the UK population?

In terms of BAME representation on boards, the number of charities with 14 per cent or more trustees from a BAME background has jumped from 14 in 2017 to 20 this year.

But this is the only area where there was a significant increase. Just 11 charities had boards that were at least 50 per cent female, down from 13 in 2017.

And only 15 charities recorded senior leadership teams where more than 14 per cent of the roles were held by BAME people (2017: 14), while 29 senior leadership teams were 50 per cent or more female (2017: 30).

Overall, the picture is very static. Just three charities out of those that provided their data matched broader societal demographics - the same number as in 2017.

The only common charity across both studies was The Children’s Society. The other two charities that met the threshold in the 2020 study were both international development charities - Oxfam and Save the Children.

Seven charities met three out of four of the measures. Chief executives have been deliberately removed from the senior leadership team to prevent them from being counted twice in the statistics –but this has resulted in the exclusion of one charity, ActionAid, which otherwise would have been included and made the 2017 list alongside WaterAid.

There are, of course, a few caveats to looking at the data this way. Because the survey polls relatively small groups of people (the average senior leadership team in the sample consists of eight people), one person can make a substantial difference to the makeup of the board or senior leadership team.

The language that is often used to speak about diversity can also be limiting, as Richard Kramer, chief executive of Sense, points out in a recent widely-shared blog (see boxout).

And while 14 per cent of the general UK population might be from a BAME background, this does not mean a charity’s diversity is representative of the people it serves, or even the area it is based in.

In London, for example, where many of these organisations have their headquarters, BAME communities make up closer to 40 per cent of the population.

And since people of colour make up just 9 per cent of the charity workforce (according to the NCVO's UK Civil Society Almanac 2020), there is clearly work that needs to be done encouraging more people into the wider sector, not simply at leadership or board level.

With those caveats aside, comparing charity data with broader population data could help to show how many organisations are meeting some degree of diversity threshold.

Diversity work must be intentional

The fact that both Oxfam and Save the Children appear on this list might come as something of a surprise - both charities were at the sharp end of the safeguarding scandal, where issues around race and gender were central to the abuses of power that took place.

But, as Kirsty McNeil, executive director of policy, advocacy and campaigns at Save the Children, points out, the scandal forced the charities to look honestly at where their own lack of diversity may have contributed to the problem.

“The harassment scandal was so profoundly rooted in gender and power and the abuse of power that it was felt to be quite important that we didn’t treat this as if it was a workplace behaviour issue without any context,” she says.

Following the allegations about inappropriate behaviour against the charity’s former chief executive and campaigns director that emerged in 2018, the charity commissioned the ethics expert Suzanne Shale to carry out a review of workplace culture. It was impossible to read the resulting report without coming to the conclusion that the gender dynamics within the organisation needed to change, says McNeil.

It also threw up a number of other issues - the organisation was very white, middle-class, graduate, remain-sympathising, and London-centric, McNeil says, all of which was affecting its diversity of thinking and strength of decision making.

Similarly, Oxfam’s Benjamin says the criticisms made of the charity had been “taken to heart” and prompted the charity to “really take a more reflective approach”.

What Oxfam, Save the Children and The Children’s Society had in common was the belief that work on diversity had to be intentional.

Janet Legrand, chair of The Children’s Society, says: “We have a very diverse board because we set out with that in mind: it is always a very explicit challenge to the recruiters, and it’s something we measure ourselves on afterwards.

“It’s a way of making sure people don’t get lazy, and go with what they think will do.”

Both Oxfam and The Children’s Society have created a post at senior management level specifically to look at diversity within the organisation, while the Children’s Society appointed Michelle Clark as director of diversity and talent three months ago.

The decision, Legrand says, was “a recognition that despite the importance of the agenda, it hadn’t been given enough senior leadership time”.

Since Benjamin was appointed, she has been involved in work to train and embed 40 “diversity champions” at different levels at Oxfam, calling out unconscious bias or racist and sexist practices, particularly around recruitment and HR.

Benjamin is also helping to embed anti-racist objectives into the charity’s strategic objectives, so that the organsation can be held accountable for its progress.

She agrees that the desire for change has to be embedded at leadership level, and nods to the role played by Oxfam’s chief executive, Danny Sriskandarajah.

“Having a person of colour leading the organisation and really strongly committing to this agenda, I think has set a really strong steer for the rest of the organisation to follow suit,” she says.

“And I think that really strong transformational leadership is what’s required in the rest of the sector as well.”

Benjamin believes data has been central to the charity’s efforts to include women and people from BAME backgrounds at the highest level at Oxfam.

There is a “very strong culture” of collecting data and then looking at it in detail to understand what it shows about gender, race, class, disability and sexual identity at different levels of the charity, she says.

The data can also be used to highlight where different approaches have been taken or where change needs to be made.

At Save the Children, McNeil says one key thing has been to identify the people within the organisation who are already taking on roles of responsibility, but outside the formal hierarchy – such as union representatives or network chairs – and looking at how to support them both in their extracurricular roles and to progress in their careers.

All three organisations agree that despite the progress made so far, there is still more to do - both for their individual organisations and for the sector as a whole.

For McNeil, one thing that links the major scandals of recent years, and risks preventing the sector from living up to its promises on diversity is a lack of awareness of “moral licensing”.

This psychological effect sees people who have done something perceived as good in one area of their lives excuse themselves doing something morally questionable in another area.

“This risk is so acute in the charity sector and no one is talking about it,” McNeil says.

“Everyone is talking about what we’re getting wrong, but no one is talking about why we are so consistently getting it wrong.”

Charities are, by and large, aware of their own situation where it comes to diversity, and are receptive to challenge from outside, she says.

“As a campaigner, the question I always ask is ‘why have you not got what you want’? It’s not enough to be right, why haven’t you won yet?” she says.

“I think it’s because the charity sector by its very nature has an absolutely chronic moral licencing problem. People feel that they do a good thing for a living, so if they do it in a bad way, it gets cancelled out.

“That’s a problem for the whole charity sector – but my word, it is more acute if your literal job is saving people’s lives.”

The problem might be chronic, she says, but it’s not fatal: assuming the sector can face up to the issue and hold itself truly accountable.

While the tide might have turned in terms of attitude to diversity, and some charities are beginning to see the effect, McNeil warns that the sector needs to keep the pressure on itself by having clear measures that provide external scrutiny.

“We can’t mark our own homework,” she says. “We have to have zero complacency in our organisations - if we bounce out of progress into complacency, we are going to go backwards.”

The limitations of language

When Richard Kramer, chief executive of Sense, sat down to fill in Third Sector’s diversity stiudy, it threw up some unexpected questions for him.

The survey asked whether the charity’s chief executive was white or from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background. Kramer is Jewish, but has in the past been verbally abused by someone who mistook him for someone of south Asian origin.

He realised his honest response, when he thought about it, was ‘neither’.

“I didn’t see myself in that binary,” he says. “I don’t identify myself as white. There is a long and vicious history of antisemitism and that has become more violent in recent years.

“But at the same time I don’t identify myself as part of the BAME community because I’m painfully aware of the structural discrimination and disadvantages they face due to skin colour – I do have some of the privileges afforded to white men.”

In the end, he put “other”, and elaborated in a thoughtful blog on the Sense website.

Third Sector welcomes this feedback and will take it on board for future editions of the study and other research, alongside considering the addition of categories that reflect people who identify as non-binary, live with a disability, or have other diverse characteristics.

Kramer’s quandary touches on a debate that Third Sector, along with many others, has been grappling with in recent months - the use of language.

The magazine polls the senior leadership and boards of the same 50 charities every three years in an effort to track the progress of sector management in moving away from the “pale, male and stale” homogeneity that has traditionally filled decision-making positions.

When running the study, Third Sector must also decide on the language used to try and capture the best picture of this relatively small sample group.

Previous studies requested that respondents identify as "white" or "other". But asking how many people in positions of power are white and how many are non-white brings its own problems: positioning white as the default, and everybody else as a deviation from the norm.

The topic is the subject of ongoing debate. There are concerns that acronyms and phrases such as BAME and "people of colour" can be used lazily, erasing individual and community identities.

Benjamin, for example, says: “I don’t quite like BAME - I think it misses a whole bunch of things, particularly around political racial characterisation. I don’t know where BAME came from, I don’t think it was from those communities themselves, it sounds more like an HR term.”

She prefers BPoc or “black and people of colour”, but she notes that the two relevant networks within Oxfam refer to themselves as BAME.

And in an upcoming blog for Third Sector, Javed Khan, chief executive of Barnardo's, sums up the issue by acknowledging he is aware that BAME is problematic, and is “very open to using a more sensitive term – once one has been identified”.

Third Sector has sought to use language with care throughout this analysis, taking a lead from the terms 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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