Ideas for dismantling institutional racism in the charity sector

16 Mar 2020 In-depth

Tania Mason reports on G&L’s recent Race to the Top event about dismantling structural racism in the charity sector, and rounds up some actions for change.

The problem with racism, said #CharitySoWhite’s campaign leader Fatima Iftikhar at last month’s Race to the Top event organised by G&L, is that too many people still think of it as intentional and personal. They think it only manifests as personal verbal abuse by one person on another.

“If we do get to talk about this topic, the conversation usually starts and ends with talking about a racist incident: x said this to y, and interpersonal interactions,” Iftikhar said. “What we do not get to, and the conversation we need to have, is about the institutional nature of racism – the supremacy of one race over another and the way that is embedded into our organisations and structures, our policies and processes, in a way that makes it invisible and normal. Because across our country, this leads to the outcomes we see with ethnic minorities in health, housing, education, employment and criminal justice.”

Her point was borne out by a question from the floor from a white executive director at one of the UK’s biggest charities. “If I were to tell my trustee board or my management team that our organisation is structurally racist, they would be genuinely horrified, and probably argue with me and say it isn’t. Because if you’re a white, middle class, non-disabled, heterosexual man, you probably have never experienced any form of discrimination. So how can I expose the senior people in my organisation to the fact that this problem exists? Because the gentle, softly-softly approach which I’ve been trying for the last five years is not making fast enough progress.”

One answer to this came from Yemi Gbajobi, chief executive of Arts Student Union: “I’d try a load of micro-aggressions,” she said. “Every time you speak to them, mispronounce their names. Complain about the weird smell of their food coming from the microwave. Ask them why they’re wearing that funny outfit. Basically, make them feel like black and brown people feel every single day. Then they might start to get it.”

The data doesn’t lie

There is no shortage of evidence of the disproportionality of white people in leadership positions in the charity sector; here are a few statistics, which should be considered alongside the fact that 86 per cent of the UK’s population identify as white:

  • 92 per cent of charity trustees are white (Taken on Trust, Charity Commission, 2017)
  • 95 per cent of charity chief executives are white (Acevo’s Pay and Equalities Survey, 2018)
  • 93 per cent of top-100 CEOs are white (Charity Finance Top 100 CEOs Survey, 2019)
  • 93 per cent of finance directors at top-100 charities are white (Charity Finance Top 100 Finance Directors Survey, 2018)
  • 93 per cent of trustees at top-500 charities are white (Inclusive Boards, 2018)
  • 99 per cent of trustees at foundation boards are white (Association of Charitable Foundations/Cass Business School, 2018)

Add to this the mountain of anecdotal evidence and personal experiences from people of colour in the sector that were posted on #CharitySoWhite when it launched, and it is clear that structural racism is indeed flourishing in charities.

Yet large parts of the sector still refuse to accept this. As Fozia Irfan, chief executive of Bedfordshire & Luton Community Foundation, said: “There’s not the acceptance yet of the covert nature of systemic racism that seeps through institutions. We’re still in the position where we’re having to fight for our concerns to be taken as legitimate before we can address those concerns. Until there is a consensus about the very existence of structural inequalities and racism, we can’t begin to tackle it.”

Derek Bardowell, author of No Win Race, who chaired the event, agreed: “It’s a conversation that’s really difficult to have with many people that are in power because we’re often confronted with a wall of silence or with indifference. And if you are indifferent, you are reinforcing the system of oppression and denying BAME people their own lived experience. And you are harming the services you’re delivering.”

One of the biggest impediments to progress that was cited by several speakers was people’s reluctance to use the word “racism”. Martha Awajobi, a corporate fundraiser at Refuge and committee member at #CharitySoWhite, said she had been struck since she joined the campaign by the sector’s “utter unwillingness to say the word racism. It’s as though equality, diversity and inclusion issues happened by accident. Structural racism is at the forefront of the reason why there is no diversity in our sector. And the reason why BAME people keep leaving.”

Iftikhar pointed out that Citizens Advice, whose training slide describing “barriers we find in BAME communities” sparked the #CharitySoWhite campaign six months ago, has still never admitted to being institutionally racist, despite being asked many times to acknowledge it.

Wanda Wyporska, chief executive of the Equality Trust, added that when people use language like “left behind” – as in the Sustainable Development Goals – this makes racism sound accidental when actually it is structural.

Tom Lawson, chief executive of Turn2Us, said that whenever he raises the issue of white privilege and supremacy in white-only spaces, people agree that there’s a problem, but then immediately seek to water it down by diverting the discussion onto issues of gender, class or disablism as well. He believes this is because people who have power are scared that if they share power, that means they will have less, “as if power is a pie. And that if I give you this piece of pie I’ll have less myself, instead of sharing it and watching it grow.”

Ways to move forward

So how do we make progress on tackling the problem? As #CharitySoWhite blogged on Civil Society News last year, “Acknowledging institutional racism in your organisation does not mean that you are solely responsible for it occurring. All it means is that you accept that you have responsibility in changing it.” The first step, recommends James Fitzpatrick, chief executive of the Joseph Levy Foundation, is to take stock of your own individual and organisational values and ask yourself where you stand on the issue. Then, ask “What opportunities do I have to make a change and shift power?” and make a personal action plan with steps you will take to promote equity and inclusion individually, within your organisation, and within your networks.

Fitzpatrick has published a list of specific actions that individuals and sector umbrella bodies can take; see Boxout 1 for a selection and a link to the full list.

At organisational level, #CharitySoWhite has a list of questions that it says organisations should be considering at all levels, but especially at leadership level. See Boxout 2.

#CharitySoWhite has also challenged charity leaders to make a public statement declaring there is structural racism in the sector, that they are part of the problem and that they commit to end the institutional racism in their organisations. “Not many people have done that,” says Awajobi, “and the lack of action is getting embarrassing.”

Yemi Gbajobi adds that it’s a conversation that should never stop, even if your organisation makes progress. “We continue to have conversations about race, even though 25 per cent of our staff are now people of colour, because it’s important that any person who walks through our door is part of that conversation. We also acknowledge that people will move on, and we want them to take those values with them when they go to other jobs. That’s how the ripples of those conversations sneak their way into other organisations.”

Role of regulators and funders

The Charity Commission has so far declined to set out any requirements or guidance for charities on diversity. Colin Douglas, the Commission’s interim director of policy and communications, told Race to the Top that regulation was a “safety net” but ultimately it is down to a charity’s leadership to create diverse and inclusive workplaces.

Douglas also urged people to acknowledge that achieving genuine diversity is hard, because “if we pretend it is simple, we are setting organisations up to fail when they embark on the journey”.

“Even working in an environment where everyone looks the same is not comfortable,” he said. “People still rub up against each other in odd and awkward ways. The more diversity you bring into that environment, the more opportunities there are for conflicts and misunderstandings. You have to create an environment where that can happen constructively.”

But Fitzpatrick challenged the absence of action by the regulator, claiming that the voluntary approach of waiting for leaders to take action merely serves to reinforce the status quo of white power and privilege. “I have a big problem with the glacial pace of change on this,” he said. “Change is happening at the speed of white.”

He has suggested that the regulator could require all charities above a certain income threshold to report against a small number of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) indicators as part of the annual return.

Fitzpatrick also had recommendations for the foundation sector: all trusts and foundations ought to list themselves on, so that grantees can use its public feedback mechanism to rate them on their approach to DEI. And 360Giving, the voluntary database where trusts can publish their grants data, ought to introduce indicators for DEI.

Fozia Irfan agreed that the foundation sector was subject to far too little scrutiny and accountability, which is why she is leading a three-year programme of work on diversity and inclusion with 15 funders who have committed to change. “I will be taking them through a process where they are going to answer very difficult questions about the distribution of their funding, where it is going and how they work internally.”

Stepping up the activism

Some speakers highlighted the absence of any activist movement on racism in the UK, and identified this as an opportunity.

Irfan said: “Apart from the Stephen Lawrence tragedy, there has been no national conversation about institutional racism and no public outcry about its existence. This is a very different state of affairs to the US, where there is a long-term civil rights movement based on the moral imperative for change.

“But as times are changing, as movements are becoming decentralised, there’s an opportunity there that I would urge people to think about – harnessing the power of fluid movements like Black Lives Matter.”

Tom Lawson, chief executive of Turn2Us, added that the internet could be a gamechanger. “Obviously criminal justice does not work for people of colour, it’s atrocious,” he said, “but social media justice has begun to, and it is fast and it is fierce.”

Lawson also advised borrowing tactics from the gay rights movement in the 90s, where campaigners from Outrage took aggressive action such as having public sex in parks and threatening to “out” gay MPs and church bishops, while Stonewall lobbied parliamentarians behind closed doors. Between them they succeeded in achieving many gains for LGBTQ people, such as equalising the age of consent.

Lawson concluded: “I wonder whether there needs to be something similar in tackling white supremacy. In every ecosystem of change there has to be, for the people who have experienced unfairness, a place for them simply to shout, and for the people who have been oppressing and committing the offence, a place for them to listen. We need to think about the whole ecosystem of change that we need to drive progress forward.”

Boxout 1: Make way and shift power

James Fitzpatrick proposes some ideas for how white people can give way and share power with their BAME colleagues

  • All white male chairs over 40 need an “exit plan” that will see them identify, mentor and hand over to a successor who doesn’t look like them, within two years. The Association of Chairs should develop a framework for such exit plans.
  • All white male chief executives over 40 need a “creating the competition” plan that will see them identify, mentor and promote potential rivals for their next job, over the next two years – rivals who don’t look like them. A framework for such plans should be developed by Acevo.
  • All white male charity finance directors and treasurers need to compile a Funding Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) playbook which they will use to embed DEI in budget setting, financial reporting and performance management across their organisation by the end of the next financial year. A template Funding DEI playbook should be developed by Charity Finance Group.
  • Senior appointments in charities should be on a fixed-term basis, ie five years, to ensure sufficient churn to enable people who aren’t older white men to move into senior roles.
  • Don’t take a trustee role if you’re male, middle-aged and white – volunteer in other ways.
  • Don’t accept places on men-only or white-only panels.

You can find the full list at

Boxout 2: Questions to ask of your charity

#CHARITYSOWHITE recommends that all charities ought to be searching out answers to the following questions, if they are serious about tackling institutional racism in their organisations:

  • What is the make-up of our leadership team?
  • What experiences are shaping our worldviews?
  • Where does power and decisionmaking lie and how does this impact how well we are able to serve our users?
  • How does this impact how well we serve our users and what views are missing?
  • How does tackling institutional racism mean we are better able to serve our users?
  • How might external structures of inequality be manifesting themselves inside our organisation?
  • How well does the culture at our organisation serve people of colour?
  • How do we actively invest in and support our staff of colour?
  • Would people of colour at our organisations feel comfortable or able to share their experiences of racism?
  • How have we worked with others in the past to impact and tackle issues? What would enable us to do this more often and more meaningfully?
  • How can we begin to share these reflections in conversations with our donors? 
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