Sanjiv Lingayah: To progress on race equity, we need to up the ante on accountability

Charities are being scrutinised and self-scrutinising on race equity as never before – but we cannot simply assume this will remain the case

Although many in the charity sector express support for the cause of race equity, few seem willing or able to take serious steps to deliver it. 

This "half in half out" position on anti-racism has been the default over past decades: and means that the charity sector has been against racism more in theory than in practice. 

In these tumultuous times, there seems to be a greater appetite for change inside the mainstream charity sector. This is welcome – but history tells us that it may be a temporary phenomenon. 

We need to invest in ways to ensure that progress can be sustained and accelerated. This commentary focuses on one area for investment: accentuating accountability on racism and race equity.

Accountability that counts 

Accountability is much talked about, but tends to be rather flimsy in practice. Strong accountability has numerous interconnected dimensions to it, including:

Standards: Some form of appropriate targets for the proportion of racialised people among a charity’s beneficiaries or its workforce

Record-keeping: To monitor performance against standards, such as an organisation’s ethnicity pay gap

Answerability: A requirement that leaders explain their actions

Consequences: Such as benefits or disbenefits for performance

Although everyone seems to think that accountability is a good thing, historically there has been weak accountability on issues of race and racism in the charity sector.

Until recently, there has been little discussion, let alone agreement, on standards to which organisations should aspire. 

Critically, sector power dynamics and de-prioritisation of racial justice issues have meant few charities have felt answerable to the subject or faced consequences for consistent failure. 

Some charities are now making themselves more accountable on their race equity performance.

This is useful, but we need charity accountability on race equity to be more than an option for some organisations. It needs to be the default position, built on an infrastructure of scrutinising media, researchers, activists and public. 

Charity accountability on race equity should also be backed, if necessary, by new regulatory requirements. 

Charity So White has led the way on ensuring a greater degree of charity sector accountability on race.

Although the group might be unpopular in some circles, it will be a sign of growing maturity when the charity sector understands the value of these – sometimes frictional – efforts to keep the sector focused on improvement. 

Our sector would benefit even more if Charity So White and other agents of accountability were trusted with no-strings-attached funding to keep our sector moving on racial justice. 

What about other mechanisms of accountability? We could have artists in residence in the sector encouraged to create on the theme of race and charity, and provide examples to lift the sector’s imagination and ambitions when it comes to racial justice. 

Accountability questions for charities 

Accountability is something we can all participate in. For example, current or potential employees, interns or trustees can (to a lesser or greater extent) ask questions and secure answers on how charities incorporate racial justice into their work.

When charities partner with one another they can mutually scrutinise along these lines too. 

Funders – setting aside the work that they have to do themselves on race – have significant power to hold to account those in receipt of or applying for grants.

At the same time, the movement to decolonise wealth and philanthropy means prospective grantees are increasingly assessing grant-makers on their racial equity practice.  

Accountability is made easier if we can establish some questions to ask on race equity. Here are five examples distilled from our Home Truths report on race and diversity.

  1. What is your charity’s definition of racism and race equity? What does it mean for your work?

  2. What explicit race equity goals and targets are included in your organisation’s strategic aims? How are these going to be delivered? 

  3. What is your charity’s ethnicity pay gap? What measures are to be taken to close any gaps?

  4. In what ways are you reconfiguring hiring processes and criteria to value existing excellence in black, Asian and minoritised ethnic populations?

  5. In what ways are your chief executive and board chair genuinely accountable for progress on race equity? What happens if they fall short on race equity?

By the end of this year it would be reasonable to expect charities to have something sensible to say in response to each of these questions. This is art not science, so a perfect set of answers do not exist. 

We might wish to see responses that define racism not as an abstract external world problem, but one that plays out in the charity itself. 

Organisations should also understand that equity is not just about employing a certain proportion of racialised people in their workforce but is, crucially, about incorporating racial justice goals into the overall work of the charity. 

We may also want some more assurance of consequences (question five) for leaders and of remedial actions when organisational progress on race equity is too slow. 

Accountability needs architecture 

Robust accountability is vital if we are serious about building a charity sector centred on racial equity. Though charities are being scrutinised and self-scrutinising on race equity as never before, we cannot simply assume that this will remain the case. 

The accountability regime we need on race equity in the charity sector must be relentless in focus, lift standards, ensure answerability and make charity performance on race matter.

It requires serious conversations about what an accountability ecosystem requires and how it is to be resourced.

Accountability on its own will not ensure that racial justice is centred in the charity sector. But without enhanced accountability we are destined to continue to fall short in terms of delivering for racialised populations – and will also fail to fulfil the sector’s higher purpose of healing and making society whole.  

Dr Sanjiv Lingayah is the lead author of Home Truths: Undoing racism and delivering real diversity

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