Editorial: Our playing field still needs a lot of levelling

Stephen Cook, editor

Race and disability - these are the most eye-catching aspects of Third Sector's survey of diversity among the leaders of the UK's top 50 charities, analysed in our features pages this week. Only one of them is not white, and the only one with a disability asserts that it's never really bothered her. This is a limited study and the figures might be different if more charities were included. But let's be honest - it's unlikely that the wider picture would look very different. And it's hardly surprising that Lord Adebowale (whose charity, Turning Point, is not in the top 50) is calling for an inquiry.

One way of trying to redress the balance would be to set targets, adopt positive discrimination policies and work through special representative bodies. But Adebowale says this is the not the best way forward, no doubt because experience suggests such methods can cause as many problems as they solve. In general, the best one can wisely say is that if you have several equivalent candidates for a job, you choose the one who increases diversity. This switches the focus to the more subtle and complex challenge that faces our entire society - creating a level playing field.

In other ways, the sector isn't doing too badly. There's good representation for women, whose recent rise might augur well for those other, more difficult aspects. And - at the risk of being provocative - is it necessarily a bad thing that these 50 leaders have an average of 30 years of solid experience and 35 per cent went to Oxbridge?

Opinion is divided over whether opt-out fundraising methods alienates supporters (see Hot Issue, opposite). The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society wrote to some supporters saying their direct debits would go up unless they wrote back to prevent it. Now the society is planning to extend a pilot mailing of 2,800 to all 16,000 supporters who have adopted dolphins.

It says hardly anyone has complained, and only 4 per cent of the pilot study opted out of paying more.

But how much thought has there been about the hidden figure of those who might have disliked the ploy without going so far as actually complaining, and - more importantly - those who haven't opted out only because they didn't get far enough down the second side of the letter to spot the 'sting'?

Public tolerance of pushy direct mail methods is limited, and this kind of thing risks damaging the prospects for charities in general, not just for the society.

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