Asheem Singh: Race, not pay, is the charity sector’s last great taboo

30 Jan 2017 Voices

Asheem Singh says it’s time that the charity sector to “grasp the nettle and talk about race”, following the results of Acevo’s latest pay and equalities survey. 

It is true of just about every walk of life in our nation today and it is also true of the charity sector. It is time we talked about race.

Nearly every year for the last 17 the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo) has published a charity pay survey. Often the results are divisive – that’s just the way it is but, given the often lurid headlines and toxic debate, our approach is that transparency is the best policy. 
For a number of years, the survey has included questions on gender and race. These consistently reported dispiriting inequalities. The charity sector’s foot-soldiers are often women or from minority ethnic backgrounds. 

Its leaders: not so much. In 2015, the survey reported 42 per cent of charity leaders were women and 7 per cent from BAME backgrounds. In 2013, using a slightly different methodology, it was 45 per cent women and 3 per cent BAME. 

We shifted the focus this year to ‘Pay and Equality.’ On pay, there has been a significant diminution; a sign of a sector tightening its belt in the teeth of ferocious funding cuts and other assaults. Median pay went from £55,500 to £50,000. The charity sector we have is irrevocably changing and it’s time we talked about that and what it means for our future.

The problem

But perhaps the most eye-catching statistics from the survey were around equalities. 

There is the good. 58 per cent of charity leaders are now women; the first time there has been parity or more. 

We know that the sector has worked hard to bring forward talented women leaders and we are beginning to see this work pay off. There is the bad. I am sorry to say that a gender pay gap still remains.
But then there is the ugly. On the race side of the equation, there appears to be a problem. 

I contend that it is a great source of shame for the sector that the survey revealed only around 3 per cent of charity leaders were from BAME backgrounds.  
We can speculate as to the reasons, talk about sample sizes and methodologies – which have differed slightly year on year from survey to survey, and thus compel further, more detailed research to get more detail on the problem.
But let us not kid ourselves. If we in the sector are to retain credibility on this issue, we cannot sit on our hands waiting for the perfect data set. 

Enough sources over a long enough period of time corroborate the indication that this is systemic. Only last year, it was found that over half of charities in England and Wales lacked even a single BAME trustee. Recruitment firm Green Park suggest BAME individuals are underrepresented by four to one relative to the wider population in senior charity roles. We need to take action now to overcome a generation of inertia. 

A solution? 

We need ideas and here I’d like to fly a kite. How about charity boards consider an adaptation of the ‘Rooney Rule’ as applied to head coaches in the American National Football League, that guarantees a minority ethnic candidate an interview for a charity CEO position. 

It would require amendment for each individual organisation and its needs, but this is not beyond the wit of trustees; or beyond the vision of the sector to subscribe to a movement that expresses these principles.
The rule has sparked debate across the country. It has been suggested by ex-footballers such as Jason Roberts in order to try and achieve a more representative cadre of Premier League managers.

There have been vicious, at times ugly exchanges within the game and the proposals have been largely rejected. The stakes are too high and football is too conservative, it seems, to try something different.
But for charities, progress should be our entire purpose. From the groups that drove the abolition of slavery, the civic organisations that gained the vote for women, to the charities that fight for the rights of disabled people, our sector sees itself as nudging the conscience of the nation; nudging its institutions to act. 
Perhaps the rule won’t work. Perhaps it will. But to try it out and see if others might follow would absolutely be in the tradition of the great charity-driven reforms.  

Antagonists to this idea may argue that they have quite enough to worry about keeping their causes afloat and their beneficiaries served as it is and I empathise with this view. 

But the entire reason for their cause is because it speaks to the kind of society in which we want to live and the values we hold dear. And if our social sector’s leadership is not representative of society, just what do we offer that is different or alternative?
For far too long this issue has been in the ‘irrelevant or too difficult box’. Few have been prepared to interrogate and challenge the barriers to entry, for fear of rocking the boat. 

Action on this issue would help re-emphasise the directional role of charity in twenty first century Britain. Not as an ever weaker heartbeat in a heartless world, but as a radical, meaningful agitator for hope and progress across our nation.

Charities have made clear progress on gender equality, though we still have a way to go. Now let us be among the first to grasp the nettle and talk about race.


More on