Tania Mason: How do you solve a problem like diversity?

16 May 2018 In-depth

Tania Mason looks at what the barriers to tackling diversity are.

So we have some more depressing research showing how un-diverse our charity boards and senior leadership teams are. This new study, by Inclusive Boards, of the top 500 charities found that 66 per cent of boards are all white, as are 79 per cent of executive leadership teams.

What’s worse is the response from the charity leaders assembled at the report launch event. The report recommended that the Charity Commission ought to make it mandatory for charities to report on their diversity, and their efforts to improve diversity, in their annual reports. Speaking at the launch, the Commission’s policy chief Sarah Atkinson responded that this was something the regulator might look at in future for the very largest charities, but was conscious that when you make something a regulatory requirement, you can kill all the benefit out of it. “It stops being something boards do because they value it, because they want to do it, and becomes something they do with a grudge, or something their auditor may do for them.”

The reaction to this from the crowd gathered before her was rather “dispiriting”, Atkinson said later. “They basically said ‘No, you have to make it mandatory, it will never happen if you don’t’. I find it sad that many charity leaders would say that. But it’s true; the research shows there has been no movement on inclusiveness of black, Asian and minority ethnic trustees on those boards in the last two years.”

Yet, many of the senior charity figures attending the launch had taken to Twitter to lament the findings, so it’s not as if there’s no recognition of the problem. What then are the barriers to tackling it? One oft-quoted issue is that potential BAME trustees aren’t that easy to find, and don’t put themselves forward. Sir Ken Olisa, chair of Shaw Trust, spoke to this at Civil Society Media’s Trustee Exchange conference last month. He said that if your open recruitment processes fail to throw up sufficiently diverse candidates, there is nothing wrong with identifying suitable people and “tapping them up” to apply. This word-ofmouth technique that has helped to keep boards so pale and male for so long and is now frowned upon, could be put to good use as a way of improving diversity.

Much has been written about the business case for more diverse boards, but surely the recent safeguarding scandals provide another impetus. A board that boasts a number of trustees who are more representative of the charity’s service users, or staff, is much more likely to set strategy and policies that protect those people from harm, and much less likely to sweep complaints and problems under the carpet. Another session at Trustee Exchange featured two service-user trustees from the Advocacy Project, discussing the unique perspective they bring to their trustee board. Yet less than a third of the audience raised their hands when asked whether their board had any service-user trustees. It’s a good place to start.

For more ideas, come to our Charity People & Culture conference on 18 September. This year’s event has a whole stream on diversity and inclusion, as well as an opening keynote called ‘Diversity is beautiful’ from comedian Francesca Martinez and a closing keynote panel debate on how to tackle racial bias in the sector. Improving diversity in charity leadership is not a nice-to-have. It’s essential if we are to have a sector we can all be proud of.

Civil Society Media is hosting its Charity People & Culture Conference on 18 September 2018. For more information, and to book, click here.

 

 

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