Nicola Steuer: Do social enterprises hold the answer to the sector's diversity problem?

People from minority backgrounds and marginalised communities have been able to fill leadership roles in social enterprises far more easily than at charities

Nicola Steuer
Nicola Steuer

The charity sector has a diversity problem. Many of us have suspected this for years, but a flurry of recent activity is forcing us to confront the issue. Ninety-three per cent of charity chief executives are from white backgrounds, according to Acevo's Pay and Equalities Survey 2019; chief executives with disabilities are under-represented; and Acevo and Voice4Change have launched a new project to increase racial diversity in the voluntary sector. A new book by Duncan Exley, former director of the Equality Trust, explains that campaigning charities are dominated by people with privilege.

It’s stark news for a sector that seeks equal rights and social progress. But one corner of the world of change-makers is bucking the trend: social enterprises.

Of the 1,350 social entrepreneurs we supported through the first five years of our biggest UK programme at the School for Social Entrepreneurs, one in five was from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background. This reflects the UK population: one in five self-identifies as being from an ethnic minority, while 86 per cent of the population of England and Wales is white.

Two-thirds of the social entrepreneurs we support are women, and almost 1 per cent are transgender. One in 10 self-identifies as having a disability, although this is still under-representative of the UK at large: almost two in 10 working-age adults are disabled, and attracting more candidates with disabilities is now a key focus in the year ahead.

These figures come from an independent evaluation of our Lloyds Bank and Bank of Scotland Social Entrepreneurs Programme, run in partnership with the School for Social Entrepreneurs and funded jointly with the National Lottery Community Fund.

The diversity we see among the leaders we support mirrors the social enterprise sector at large. Research by Social Enterprise UK shows that 12 per cent of social enterprises are led by people from BAME backgrounds, and 34 per cent have someone from a BAME background on their leadership teams. More than a third have someone with a disability on their leadership teams.

Why have people from minority and marginalised communities been more able to become leaders in social enterprises than in traditional charities? And what can the broader third sector learn from social enterprises?

Social entrepreneurship offers the opportunity for anyone to become the leader of an organisation. When you start your own organisation there are no hierarchies, no hiring committees, no being excluded by interviewers with biases. If you have an idea for change, you can make it happen, then build a team to support your leadership. This levels the playing field enormously.

But deciding to be a leader doesn’t automatically make you great at leadership. People running any type of organisation need support.

That’s why the learning approach of the School for Social Entrepreneurs focuses on developing the personal capabilities of leaders as much as the technical skills needed to manage an organisation. We help people to build their emotional resilience, confidence and sense of legitimacy as leaders of change. This approach seems to be working: the 1,350 social entrepreneurs have affected the lives of 328,000 beneficiaries while creating 4,000 full-time-equivalent jobs.

Leadership opportunities must be open to everyone if we want to create a more equal society. But we need to work intentionally to create these opportunities. To improve the diversity of leadership in the social sector, the right learning and development opportunities must be available to all.

It is time to acknowledge that leaders exist in all communities and come from all backgrounds. Let’s provide the inclusive environment and support they need to thrive.

Nicola Steuer is the managing director of the School for Social Entrepreneurs @NicolaSteuer and @SchSocEnt on Twitter


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