The social make-up of the staff and trustee boards at our charities has long been a contentious issue: the principal matter in dispute being one of too many privileged people – especially on trustee boards – and too few of those who know what the world feels like from the bottom up.
And the row isn’t, it seems, going away any time soon, despite ever greater efforts to promote diversity. Indeed, views appear to be getting ever more polarised with the disturbing drift in our public discourse and politics in general.
In his new book The End of Aspiration, Duncan Exley, former director of the Equality Trust, argues that the less privileged in the socio-economic pecking order are being "crowded out" of charities where, instead, there are to be found too many recruits from solidly middle class or upper-class backgrounds. The result, he suggests, is that such charities tend to go for messages that resonate with people of wealth and influence. In other words, their radical edge is blunted.
Exley points an accusing finger in particular at the environmental movement. He says it is full of toffs who have sufficient financial resources themselves to be able to change their lifestyles to adopt more environmentally friendly – but also more expensive – products and practices, and then assume everyone else, with smaller bank balances, or no bank account at all, can do the same.
I am not sure this description fits with the Extinction Rebellion protesters who recently took to the streets of the capital. They appeared, to my untrained eye, pretty diverse. If you wanted to pick out an over-representation of any one group it was – logically enough – the young, who will face the consequences of my generation’s failure to tackle the challenge of climate change more vigorously.
Let’s be clear. I am not suggesting there isn’t something in what he says. Trustee boards, despite a litany of appeals from the Charity Commission to embrace diversity, remain solidly white, middle class and middle-to-old age. Yes, as I have written before, they need to change, 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.
That example reveals that the causes of the problem are rather more complicated than a bunch of over-educated, over-privileged folk who have never personally known hardship deciding to colonise the third sector to make them feel less guilty about their trust funds.
And in case you think I’m sounding defensive, my mum and dad left school at 15 and 14 and I grew up in Birkenhead, hardly a bastion of privilege and, as recently revealed in research by The Guardian, to be where four of the most depressed communities in the country are found.
One reason for the relative scarcity of those from under-privileged backgrounds in senior roles at charities is the same one that accounts for their under-representation in senior roles in all other organisations and businesses: education.
Oxfam, for example, has been trying to tackle this by being more open to recruiting non-graduates, but there is a reason why employers like to give jobs to people with degrees.
They are often better qualified to operate effectively in the workplace. If we really want to tackle the dominance of the university-educated in the better end of the jobs market – including in charities – let’s start by removing the obstacles to those without the "bank of mum and dad" behind them going to university.
The risk here, I would argue, as elsewhere, is one of becoming too binary. To tackle homelessnees, you don’t have to have been homeless. To know what needs to change in our prison system, you don’t have to have spent some time residing at Her Majesty’s pleasure. It can help, of course.
And those who do know such worlds from the inside can be a powerful corrective when part of a team at a charity devising policies, not to mention articulate advocates for change. But it is not one thing or the other.
Our society might be getting more polarised, more unequal, but the work of charities has to be to tackle that head-on, to build consensus, 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.
To fix a sickly society, to "aspire" in Duncan Exley’s terms, it needs all hands on deck.
Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years