Joe Saxton: Diversity is more than skin deep

Any organisation that wants to be diverse must work out how to deal with different, even dissenting views, writes our columnist

Joe Saxton
Joe Saxton

After the recent Taken on Trust report, everybody is talking about the lack of diversity in charities. The problem is that most people’s definition of diversity is only skin deep. Are there more men or women? Do we have young people on the board? Are we ethnically diverse?

But there is no point in aiming to be diverse and then making decisions in the same way as before. The benefit of diversity is not about who is round the table, but about listening to different voices, about different ways of engaging stakeholders, about different ways of discussing issues and, above all, about making better decisions.

Let me put my argument another way. If a board or an organisation is really diverse by all the stereotypical measures but continues to have a hierarchical structure that makes poor decisions, is that ok?

Diversity at its best is a multitude of ways of people contributing their ideas and having an input. There are many barriers to this kind of diversity. Somebody told me how an overseas NGO asked all its partners for their views and held consultation meetings. The expatriate staff were puzzled to encounter partners climbing up the stairs on their hands and knees. They had never seen or climbed stairs before.

Diversity is also about how a board works. When I was chair of People & Planet, which encourages students to campaign, we moved from a system in which I chaired the meetings to one in which a student did. At each board meeting a different student put the agenda together and chaired the meeting. The students were far more inclusive than I ever was. More voices were heard, discussions were longer and more animated, and the meetings typically took twice as long: working in a different way rarely happens without effort.

With diverse decision-making come diverse views. So any organisation that wants to be diverse needs to work out how to deal with diverse, even dissenting views – not just how to listen to them, but also what to do when no agreement can be reached. This means ensuring that those who don’t agree, or who feel that their voices aren’t being heard, have somewhere to go: in other, words a meaningful whistleblower policy. Think about how, in many of the recent sexual harassment cases, people told somebody but no one listened. For me, diversity is a way of trying to listen to the quietest of voices.

At nfpSynergy we have a yellow card system. When somebody says or does something that a colleague doesn’t like, the colleague can issue them with a yellow card. If they don’t want to tell the person directly, they can tell a director or their manager. I got issued with a "beige" card recently for being indiscreet with feedback. We hope this is a way that will allow people from different backgrounds, with different levels of confidence and at different stages in their careers to be heard. We have found that it's very easy to think we have given enough opportunities for involvement, but we forget how cultures and personalities vary in what leaves them feeling they can speak up.

My experience is that diversity requires a response that is way more than skin deep. It can – indeed, it should – change aspects of management from top to bottom. And just when you think you have got somewhere, you realise you have only scratched the surface.

Joe Saxton is the founder and driver of ideas at the research consultancy nfpSynergy

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