Steven McIntosh: What we're doing to stop being 'so white'

Save the Children UK's lead for organisational change explains the steps it is taking to become a more diverse and inclusive employer

Steven McIntosh
Steven McIntosh

The #CharitySoWhite campaign has provoked a big debate on social media. It has confronted some widely held assumptions in the charity sector, including some of which I’ve been guilty: presuming that thoughtful, socially minded, values-driven charity workers are automatically better than most people at "doing" diversity and inclusion at work.

But good intentions don’t insure against unthinking behaviour or a lack of self-awareness.

As part of a staff-led programme to improve Save the Children’s culture, we’ve asked our staff if they are confident in understanding their personal role in creating an inclusive culture. And we’ve also asked if they think that our organisation achieves it.

There’s a big gap between the two survey results. People are overwhelmingly likely to think they get it, but significantly less likely to think the rest of our organisation does.

Based on our often inadequate data on workforce diversity (sometimes driven by a lack of trust from our staff in providing it), we’ve now started to break down our staff survey results according not only to seniority or department, but also to gender, ethnicity, LGBT+, disability and faith.

The results are hard-hitting. If you’re among these groups, you’re less likely to enjoy your role, trust our managers and leaders, feel supported and comfortable, and think that our processes and policies support you. We’ve been actively reaching out to staff, gathering their experiences and stories, something that makes all these themes tangible. We’ve also been finding a lack of inclusion related to class, educational background or even people’s political views.

We’ve been discussing with colleagues what is driving these results. At one end of the spectrum they can be seen as representing a specific organisational failure to focus on recruiting a diverse workforce and creating an inclusive environment. At the other, this data obviously exposes deep-rooted social inequalities in our society that are playing out in our workplace.

Both are accurate. Neither is acceptable.

Save the Children was set up a 100 years ago and our founders fought from the start for rights and protections designed to defend people against exclusion and oppression. Looking at how we treat each other in the workplace and saying "we’re no worse than others" couldn’t be a weaker response to this mission. If anything, the fact that people come to work for us to tackle injustice makes it all the more galling for our staff that we don’t practise what we preach.

I’m acutely aware that I’m here, preaching about diversity as a white, male, middle-class, university-educated charity director. In diversity and inclusion training, I hit the overwhelming majority of the characteristics associated with privilege, and I’m pretty representative of the people who work in the HQs of large UK charities and even more representative of charity leaderships and boards.

I can’t claim to speak on behalf of staff who want to work in charities but haven’t been able to get in, who don’t feel included when they do, or who feel they can’t progress in the sector. But people like me absolutely need to own diversity and inclusion.

Leadership teams and boards must reflect on their own roles in our organisation and ensure that we hear the experiences of people who are not included, while not leaving it to them to do the heavy lifting of coming up with solutions to respond.

My background is in advocacy and campaigning, and I’m embarrassed to say that before this year I hadn’t applied the same lens to tackling our internal power structures and inequalities as I had to the outside world. However, as in the outside world, we know there aren’t quick fixes here.

That said, we have started to lay some solid foundations at Save the Children in recent years. New staff equalities networks have been created, and their voices are getting louder and being heard. We are starting to improve the diversity of our board after a more focused recruitment drive that took into consideration commitment to diversity and inclusion. We have recruited a new diversity, inclusion and access specialist who will help to form the long-term strategy to truly change our culture for the better. We are also paying particular attention to role-modelling for our management team. We are carving out time for our leadership to undergo diversity and inclusion training that focuses not just on the concepts, but also on our own behaviours.

All of these are positive steps, but we are not deceiving ourselves: this is not about ticking some boxes. We now need to convert this moral drive into a strategic organisational response, co-created with our staff, to change how we work, our self-awareness, our culture, our policies and our practices. We have a long road ahead, but owning our mistakes, confronting our assumptions and actively listening to our colleagues are the first steps towards achieving an organisation that reflects our values and the communities we serve.

Steven McIntosh is executive lead for organisational change at Save the Children UK

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