Duncan Exley: Ordinary people feel, at best, overlooked by charities

The inclusion of people with relevant lived experience must go beyond merely a 'nice to have,' writes the author of The End of Aspiration

Duncan Exley
Duncan Exley

"The social make-up of the staff and trustee boards at our charities needs to change," writes Peter Stanford, "but that depends on younger, less economically advantaged individuals putting themselves forward to be trustees, and they just aren’t doing so in sufficient numbers."

Stanford’s view is from a Third Sector article about my book The End of Aspiration? Social mobility and our children’s fading prospects, in which I ask why Brits from ordinary backgrounds are now less likely to "go up in the world" than our parents were, despite being better educated. It will remind some readers of Oxford University’s excuse for its disproportionately low number of black British students (it doesn’t see "the right number of black people with the talent to apply").

Oxford’s explanation raises the question of whether the university itself has any influence over the number of applications from different social groups. Stanford’s explanation raises the same question about charities’ recruitment of staff and trustees.

Like the elite universities, charities could diversify applications by improving their outreach. As the charity campaigner Foyez Syed says, Ahmed (who works in Syed’s local chip shop) is "passionate and knowledgeable about the issues that we campaign on", but he is "never thought of as a potential supporter. Or, if he is, the organisation lacks the ideas, expertise or experience to reach him."

Even if a charity does succeed in reaching out to Ahmed as a potential supporter, it is unlikely that Ahmed would see it as an organisation to be employed by (I didn’t realise that you can be paid for working in the voluntary sector until, in my mid-20s, I had a chance conversation with a charity employee).

Stanford suggests that "one reason for the relative scarcity of those from under-privileged backgrounds in senior roles at charities" is education. "There is a reason why employers like to give jobs to people with degrees," he says. "They are often better qualified to operate effectively in the workplace".

Putting aside the fact that graduates from middle and low-income backgrounds are less likely to make it into senior roles in charities, where is the evidence that graduates are more effective in the workplace than those who took a more vocational route (which literally required them to operate effectively in the workplace)?

Graduates are more likely to have the sort of cultural capital with which their colleagues are comfortable, but this isn’t the same as being best suited to the job.

"The work of charities," says Stanford, "is to mend the holes that have opened up in the fabric of our society. And it won’t be done any more effectively if we start demonising those in their workforces who speak in a certain way or have a certain background."

No one is saying that privileged people should be made unwelcome in charities.

What is being said is that ordinary people often feel at best overlooked and at worst unwelcome, even if they bring an insight that more privileged people do not. Stanford says "there is a reason why employers like to give jobs to people with degrees", but "to tackle homelessness, you don’t have to have been homeless".

The suggestion that discussions of homelessness – or any other issue – should include graduates because they are "better qualified to operate effectively", whereas the inclusion of people with relevant lived experience is merely a "nice to have", creates the impression that charities are run by people who are "distant and different". This in turn contributes to a situation in which, to quote the chair of the Charity Commission, "people now trust charities no more than they trust the average stranger they meet on the street".

Duncan Exley is former director of the Equality Trust

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