Does the voluntary sector have a class problem?

Social background has an impact on employment outcomes – and although the sector lacks data on class, experts say change is long overdue

Charities Frost Report

Stuart Pearson, head of business delivery at Citizens Advice Oldham, Rochdale, Trafford and Stockport, attended a sector event in London earlier this year. During a networking break, he got chatting with a group of peers over a coffee.

As the conversation moved from professional to personal, Pearson found himself growing increasingly uncomfortable.

After the event, he tweeted about it. “Does the charity sector have a class problem?” he asked. “As someone who grew up on a council estate, single parent family, free school meals, I rarely meet senior charity people with similar stories. I always find the small talk really alien.”

The tweet hit a nerve, garnering 148 replies, 159 retweets and more than 2,000 likes. “I was really taken aback by the response,” Pearson says. “Lots of people said they were also from a similar background and felt the same way.”

The responses to Pearson’s tweet, as well as similar experiences shared by others in the sector, suggest that perhaps the question is not whether the sector has a problem with class but how big the problem is.

Unfortunately, at the moment, there isn’t a clear answer to that question.

“We don’t have any good data around things like social background in individual organisations, or in parts of the sector, or in the sector as a whole, or on how it presents as a problem,” says Sarah Atkinson, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation. The charity runs the Social Mobility Index, a benchmarking tool that asks organisations a series of questions to gauge how they are performing on social mobility and where they can improve.

Traditionally there has been very little engagement from charities. Sectors such as law, professional services and finance are more actively involved in the index and, perhaps counterintuitively, are more keenly aware of the class barriers that exist, Atkinson says.

“They have some quite specific structures that make it very obvious they have a problem,” she says, pointing to graduate schemes that require a 2:1 from a Russell Group university, strict dress codes and assessments over formal dinners. As a result, she says, these industries have collected data on the socio-economic background of their workforce for years.

But Atkinson adds: “For every developed economy in the world, social background is a strong predictor of educational and employment outcomes.”

This is true for the UK and for every bit of the UK economy where data exists, so it’s safe to assume the charity sector has a problem, according to Atkinson.

“There’s something particularly about sectors like charity, where jobs are both high-status and low-income,” she says. “Those factors are typically predictors of how easy it is to fit in and get on – we also see this in journalism, the creative industries, non-charitable international development, politics and think tanks.”

The lack of clear, defined entry routes and clear career progression routes compounds the problem, Atkinson says. “We also have the complexity of a massive emphasis on showing your commitment to the cause, which very often means having done unpaid work, or working over and above your time, and if that’s not affordable then you’re stuck.”

Closing the data gap

The Social Mobility Foundation is working to close the data gap, partnering with the charity leaders’ body Acevo to encourage more charities to participate in its index.

The youth leadership charity Reclaim is also conducting research on think tanks and charities that support people on low incomes.

The interviews and analysis from Reclaim’s work are still in progress and will be published later this year, but describing the conversations so far, chief executive Roger Harding says: “The general feeling was summed up by one person who said: ‘The charity sector should feel like home’ – and it was clear that for a lot of the people we’ve spoken to from working-class backgrounds it doesn’t.”

Many Reclaim interviewees were quick to point out that they haven’t experienced this feeling at every organisation, but they had all experienced it at some point in their careers. And working in a federated charity alongside other organisations, Pearson sees a difference between the local level, where organisations tend to be “more representative” of the community, and larger, national-level charities.

While there may be precious little quantitative data on the scale of the issue, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence from people who have experienced the sector – and those intangible barriers – as an employee from a working-class background. Like Pearson, many begin by pointing to a culture that leaves them feeling excluded.

David Lacey, director of fundraising at the Eve Appeal, describes joining the sector as “really horrible”, saying: “I’ve nearly quit so many times because I feel I’m just not welcome, I don’t fit in, it’s not for me.”

Office conversations about where everyone went to university, international travel or what their parents did for a living often left him feeling “like a massive outcast”. He says: “Those things add up quite a lot when you don’t have that shared cultural experience.”

For Alan Lally-Francis, director of policy at Acevo, that shared cultural experience also creates unspoken expectations about what is considered the “right” way to communicate.

“I don’t think our workplaces are actually accepting of difference if you’re not speaking in a very singular way,” he says.

“A lot of charities use what I call ‘Civil Service-speak’ – saying ‘interesting’ when you actually mean it’s crap, or ‘We’ll think about it’, which means ‘We’re definitely never speaking about this again’.

“It was always assumed that I understood this – but if you don’t know how to speak in that code and you’re more open and direct, you can be seen as rude or aggressive.”

And much as having fewer rigid entry rules make class discrimination harder to spot, the relaxed office atmospheres that many charities try to cultivate in an effort to be welcoming can, perversely, be more tricky to navigate.

Reclaim’s Harding says: “There’s really good research from other sectors showing that class exclusion is much more subtle in industries that are more informal.

“If you’ve got an organisation where suits are the norm, it’s much easier to work out what the uniform is and wear it, but if there are codes where one type of casual wear is fine but another is not, it’s far harder.

“It ends up requiring a lot more processing power for someone from a working-class background, trying to contribute to a meeting while also working out ‘Are my clothes OK?’ ‘Is that joke OK?’”

Lacey says he has also witnessed numerous HR practices that create more concrete obstacles for people from working-class backgrounds. For example, he once left a charity job for a new one shortly after receiving some training. The old charity deducted the cost of his training from his final pay packet, leaving him with no pay cheque for the month, and rejected his offer to set up a payment plan.

“Obviously, that’s just one very small policy, but it disproportionately impacts people that don’t have savings,” he says. “And with stuff like that, probably the person who made that decision was someone who could have moved back in with their parents, or they’ve got some savings – they don’t imagine that it could leave someone homeless.”

The recruitment barrier

Lacey argues that recruitment practices such as requiring degrees or A-levels are ultimately geared toward recruiting middle class people. If the focus is on academic qualifications that are typically completed early in life, he says, those who were brought up in difficult circumstances will be excluded.

“For me, staying on at school for A-levels was never going to happen – it was a really grim environment,” he says. “So why are you still judging me for something I had no control over, rather than on what I’ve managed to achieve, despite that, since?”

Lacey has also worked alongside colleagues with degrees in fields completely unrelated to fundraising, such as architecture.

“There might have been some foundational skills around writing effectively and time management that you’ve learned at university,” he says. “But you can learn those in other contexts as well, so I genuinely feel it’s purely a class signifier.”

He regularly notices entry-level fundraising assistant jobs advertised that he would be ineligible to apply for, despite being a fundraising director with 16 years’ experience.

And, Lacey points out, simply adding “degree or equivalent” to job requirements doesn’t help – if you haven’t done a degree, how can you be certain the experience you’ve gained elsewhere is of equal value – and how can you prove it?

Beyond qualifications, while organisations may genuinely believe they are simply seeking out the best and cleverest candidates for the role, they may inadvertently be screening candidates’ backgrounds, according to SMF’s Atkinson.

“Generally, we know your gender, your ethnicity or whether you’re disabled don’t really have anything to do with how good you are at your job – but socioeconomic advantage has this really nasty, insidious habit of manifesting in a way that looks like merit,” she says.

“When organisations look for things like lots of intellectual display, enormous social confidence, social and cultural capital, being very comfortable in all sorts of different social environments – we’ve just described someone quite privileged, but we sound like we’re describing someone very high-performing.”

These barriers become self-reinforcing, she says – a culture that is dominated and shaped by a particular type of person will result in a culture where only those people feel that they fit in. They also result in a perceived gap between a charity and a significant swathe of the people it aims to support – something that becomes increasingly uncomfortable when you have experience on both sides of the divide.

For Citizens Advice’s Pearson, it speaks to a flaw at the heart of many charities’ ethos: “We do things for people or to them and not with them.”

Limiting language

Reclaim’s Harding experienced this ethos at first hand. Growing up in a council home and watching his mum “struggle way more than anyone should have to” motivated him to work in the sector, and he’s conscious that the work of charities – campaigning for child credit and offering the programme that supported him to get into university – made a concrete difference to his life.

But a few years into his career Harding realised, to his shame, that he didn’t talk about his own background at work or relate it to the work he was doing.

“It takes a while sometimes to realise that your family is one of the ones being discussed because the language used about it is full of academic, sociological jargon and quite clunky,” he says. “When you hear terms like ‘the multiply excluded’, ‘in poverty’ and ‘the most vulnerable group’, you think: ‘Hang on, are you talking about my mum and people like her? Because I don’t think she’d be happy to be discussed in those terms’.”

He recognises that the language comes from a well-meaning place of wanting to analyse the problem, but says: “A lot of it is a bit insulting if we’re honest.

“There is a habit within the sector of talking about people in terms of weakness, as very vulnerable, dispossessed, deprived – the young people Reclaim works with would describe themselves as proud, strong, hard working, but also as let down and forgotten and overlooked.”

For these young people, Harding says: “The problem is that other people and the structures around them aren’t giving them the recognition they deserve, and that’s how we should be thinking about it.”

This situation is particularly prevalent among anti-poverty charities, he says, but has effects elsewhere – relating the story of a relative who was unwilling to call the Macmillan Cancer Support line, believing it wasn’t aimed at her.

Harding warns that by failing to mirror the language people use about themselves, the sector is ultimately alienating those who should be its most immediate audience and missing out on having much greater impact and reach.

It’s also alienating its own staff. Eve Appeal’s Lacey says he has only felt comfortable discussing his experiences since taking a leadership position “where I can set and manage the culture in my team so I can be more open without worrying about next steps and losing roles”.

Harding also talks more openly about his experiences growing up now, and says he’s had largely positive reactions. But he understands why many other people in the sector might be hesitant to speak up.

“Something people talked about in our research was a real fear that you can either be a case study, somebody with lived experience expertise, or you can be someone in senior management – but there were two lanes and you couldn’t be in both,” he says.

“Most of the people we had spoken to had chosen not to talk about their backgrounds.”

Overdue change

Class is arguably a more fluid issue compared to other areas in which people might experience workplace discrimination. Citizens Advice’s Pearson, for example, recalls being told that he couldn’t be working class because he had been to university.

And with so much incentive for people to hide their background or to try to assimilate to a middle-class norm, it can be difficult to recognise or build a sense of solidarity with someone who shares these experiences, or to identify role models already in leadership.

“There probably are more people in the sector, particularly in leadership, from similar backgrounds than I’m aware of,” Pearson says. “I’m probably making the same assumptions about them that they are making about me – that we’re all middle class.”

The idea that thousands of people throughout the sector, perhaps sitting side by side, have to hide parts of themselves while believing they are the only one is a profoundly lonely image, and an alarming one for a sector that prides itself on fighting injustice.

Harding says that when Reclaim facilitates discussions on this issue within organisations, the overwhelming response from people is relief. “They tend to say: ‘Oh, thank God it isn’t just me,’” he says.

There is a tendency within British society to see class as a distinct – and often opposing – concern to factors such as race, gender, sexuality and disability.

“There’s a worry in the charity sector that we’re talking about social mobility and social class as a way of avoiding acknowledging racism,” SMF’s Atkinson says.

“Because it absolutely does happen that you get people going: ‘Well, really, we shouldn’t be doing anything for young black people, because it’s the white working class boys who are least likely to go to university, so that’s what we should worry about.’”

This is harmful in many ways, she says, not least because it can mean that organisations committed to race equality feel that they have to stay away from discussions on social mobility.

“I think acknowledging that is important, not least so you can get past it quickly,” she says. “We know that working class isn’t synonymous with being white, that you can be black and working class and that human beings are complicated and it isn’t either-or.”

Wanda Wyporska, chief executive of the Society of Genealogists and former chief executive of the Equalities Trust, agrees. One of her biggest frustrations with the charity sector when it comes to equality, diversity and inclusion is a lack of sustained commitment to change, which can exacerbate its tendency to deal with issues of discrimination in a segmented way.

“If you think about the Black Lives Matter protests two years ago, a whole host of black and Asian leaders were appointed, and that’s fantastic, but I think we’re starting to see it’s not as high on the agenda now as it was, and it’s going back to normal,” she says.

“Our resolve to do better on an issue lasts for a while, and then something else becomes a new fad – so it’s been class, it’s been race, will we go back to gender again now or will it be something else?

“I’m a black woman who’s disabled and who’s working class – so when it comes to the barriers in the sector, which bit of that are you going to deal with? Which bit of a patient are you going to treat?”

Ultimately, Wyporska says, an approach to solving any of these issues has to be holistic.

There is no doubt that additional data will help, but Atkinson is clear: “We shouldn’t wait for the data to work out whether we’ve got a problem. We should absolutely proceed on the basis that we do and begin trying to fix what we can now.”

Solving the recruitment issues must begin with the development of multiple clear routes into the sector, she says.

“A single route is always going to be an enemy of progress. What you want are different routes for groups of people who’ve had different opportunities,” Atkinson explains.

“For some the challenge might be about getting a qualification; for some, they’re academically successful but may not have the networks they need.”

And, she says, charities need to face up to the fact that “degrees are a proxy for what we’re really saying, which is: ‘We want someone really clever and really good’”.

Instead of requiring specific qualifications, she recommends that charities spend more time thinking about the skills and capabilities they actually want, and what they hope a degree will demonstrate, and ask for that instead.

But any resolution of the problem should go beyond entry-level recruitment, Reclaim’s Harding says.

“I’m sure we have a problem with not getting enough people from working-class backgrounds into the sector,” he says. “But I’d imagine we probably also have a problem with people exiting the sector, or talented people from working-class backgrounds feeling so tired from dealing with this day-to-day that they’re not able to bring their best work to play.”

The temptation with any diversity and inclusion agenda is always to create targeted internship programmes, he says – which is great, but can’t be the end of the conversation.

“If it is, that’s an implicit admission that you’re not really looking to fix this at senior level for 30-plus years, and I don’t think people would be comfortable saying that if they realised that was the implication,” he says.

The first step, according to everyone that Third Sector spoke to, is talking about the issue more openly and encouraging people in the sector to share their own experiences. This is already beginning to happen with conversations like those surrounding Pearson’s tweet.

“You have to have the psychological safety in an organisation that allows people to say: ‘Yeah, I grew up in a housing estate,’ or ‘I grew up in care,’” Wyporska says. “Then you have to really actively set the intention to do something.”

The need for change will only become more pressing as the Victorian idea of charities as organisations “where people do good to others” crumbles further, she says, with the public and those in charities seeking greater authenticity.

“As a leader, I could go out and talk about inequality and talk about poverty because I knew what it was like to put food back in Tesco because you didn’t have enough money,” Wyporska says. “I’m not saying every charity leader needs to have the experience of every one of the beneficiaries, but that incongruence between the lived experience of leaders and those charities work with is becoming more jarring, isn’t it?”

For Lacey, change is overdue and frustratingly slow when it does happen. “You get your hopes up when you see a little bit of progress and more people talking about this, and then either nothing changes, or you see another horrible thing that makes you feel unwelcome,” he says.

“But, at least in pockets of the charity sector, I think we’re seeing more willingness to change, more openness. So that does give me hope.”

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