Stella Smith: We need to get to grips with diversity or the charity sector will become an irrelevance

The appointment of Karl Wilding as chief executive of the NCVO highlights how often we appoint one of our own

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

After some weeks of speculation, our new sector leader has been announced. Some debated whether an outsider might be appointed, but in the end Karl Wilding, director of public policy and volunteering at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, has been chosen to take the helm at the membership body. So, if it is true that we get the leaders we deserve, what does Wilding’s appointment tell us more widely about the state of the sector?

I have no wish to detract from Wilding’s achievement and the recruitment process was thorough and due process was followed. But one cannot but notice that the NCVO has appointed one of its own to be the new chief executive.

This is symptomatic of a problem across the sector: too many charity leaders come from very similar backgrounds and, when they get to the top, they stay there too long. The sector shouts loudly about diversity and is outspoken about the need to be inclusive, but when it comes to our own top jobs we simply don’t follow our own advice.

In terms of diversity, I’m not referring exclusively to the standard categories such as age, disability, gender, ethnic background, religion and sexual orientation. These are all important, of course, but what is crucial is involving people with diverse experiences and perspectives. This sector needs people who think differently. After all, when everyone thinks the same, no one really thinks at all.

Apart from the obvious ethical and moral concerns of closing out dissenting voices, our lack of diversity weakens decision-making. It is through challenge and involving different experiences that we are forced to examine our own assumptions and develop new and creative ways of doing things. Diversity is the proverbial grit in the oyster shell, the difference that provokes us into creating something truly brilliant. If we can’t embrace different ways of looking at the world and build relationships with people who disagree with us, we end up shouting in an echo chamber, irrelevant to everyone except each other.

The UK is facing some of the greatest challenges in its history. Populism, a climate emergency, threats to our democracy and the potential of a no-deal Brexit are causing divisions. At this pivotal time, our sector should be central to the wider debate. It is worrying, then, to read that, according to the Brexit Civil Society Alliance, many charities are feeling ignored. If this is true, it is because we are not perceived as having something relevant to add to the discussion. We’re in danger of being so busy talking among ourselves, to people who already think like us, that we’re losing the opportunity to have a wider impact.

Perhaps we shy away from involving people who are different because we are nervous about having our assumptions tested. Or perhaps we fear giving platforms to people who have different perspectives that undermine our own. Whatever the reasons, it’s about time the sector acknowledged it has a problem. Rather than pretending it doesn’t exist, we need to get to the bottom of this, understand why we struggle with diversity and tackle it. Only then will we be in position to inspire other organisations, sectors and communities to embrace difference.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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