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Elizabeth Balgobin: The National Emergencies Trust and me

11 Jun 2020 Voices

Elizabeth Balgobin explains why, despite well-documented challenges, she remains a member of the NET allocations committee, for now

Following the news last week about the resignations from the National Emergencies Trust Equity Working Group of Yvonne Field, Derek Bardowell and Sado Jirde, I have been fretting about whether I should write something. I want to start by thanking Yvonne, Derek and Sado for going public and ensuring a conversation is had.

This week started with articles in Third Sector and here in Civil Society about a mistake made by NET and more fretting ensued. My name had been used in the article last week as a sticking plaster over a pretty septic wound. I have received fishing messages, messages to stick it out and messages to give up my brown privilege and stand in solidarity with my black colleagues. 

Whatever statement I make will not be good enough for some, will be seen as being an apologist or overly critical, but it has become clear that my silence is also seen as a reason to criticise me. That choosing to remain on the inside is seen as collusion with a racist system.

Out of courtesy to those I reference, I have told them all that I am writing this. I have asked NET for some information to avoid me spreading inaccuracies. No one has seen this before the copy was filed with Civil Society. It is a long piece so for the TLDR amongst you: I remain on the NET allocations committee, for now, because someone has to be on the inside, even when the personal cost is high in lost work and stress.

Joining NET 

I did not seek out an opportunity to join NET. I had done my bit volunteering to grant assess early fund allocations for another funder (precisely to ensure BAME-led and other specialists would get funding). I am busy.  

One of the organisations I was working with asked me to attend on their behalf – I would be their representative on the allocations committee, and possible attendance at the equity working group when the organisation rep couldn’t.  

It turned out not to be quite like that as I had to apply in my own right, go through a competitive interview and be approved by the board. All good governance but done at incredible speed: I was asked to take this on in the last week of April, asked to apply on 1 May, interviewed on 6 May, offered the role on 7 May, declaring conflicts of interest and signing up for DBS check, and attending my first meeting on 11 May. As I write this I have been involved for exactly one month.

At the point that I joined, Yvonne, Derek and Sado had just resigned and I was asked to attend all equity working group (EWG) meetings to try and help fill that gap. 

Soon people were telling me what was wrong

Allocations was working at speed to get as much money out as quickly as possible and I was learning on the job. There was no induction process but I quickly had people contacting me to tell me what was wrong and looking to me to push through changes. 

I have been challenging, shouty and emotional in meetings. This is not my normal professional behaviour but my own saviour complex has meant I could not in good conscience step away and leave the organisation operating as it was.  

If this crisis has shown anything it is that the inequity in our society has deepened and those most affected by this crisis are those with a BAME heritage, disabled people, women and some parts of the LGBTQI community. If you were marginalised and the structures and systems worked against you before you are disproportionately affected by Covid-19. Someone has to be in the room where it happens to push for more, push for it to be spent well, push for urgency, push for better.

My frustration and clashes with NET colleagues arose because I did not understand how they were set up and how they were working on this crisis. I have challenged them to change their distribution channels, with no understanding of why they are as they are; change the governance structure; provide data on spend to BAME (and other) communities and change spend to meet those needs and; the board and staff to have racism training.

Covid-19 meant ramping up to a level NET was not prepared for 

It has taken me this long to understand the structure.  I am sharing this not as an apology for NET, it isn’t, but to increase understanding.

I knew they were new, and therefore young as an organisation. This year has been so long that I didn’t really appreciate that they only launched in November 2019 with just three staff, 10 trustees, no office (British Red Cross is a postal address) and a contract with someone for IT support.  

I did not understand that the founding partners were inbuilt as part of the distribution model, essentially UK Community Foundations, as the emergency they expected to work on would be another horrendous terrorist attack, fire or flood.  The distribution model makes sense in that context.

I understand that the board met in mid-March to activate an appeal and response to Covid-19. At that point people were struggling to get food and deal with the health risks. Getting money out as quickly was all consuming and raising the funds for that ran in parallel. I believe the first allocation of funds were distributed to local community foundations across all four nations seven days later.

The Covid-19 crisis meant ramping up to a level that they were not prepared for. The team grew to over 60 people, half of whom are volunteers – some with senior titles. I did not realise that all these people sending me emails at midnight and 6am might not be paid.

I didn’t know how many committee meetings there are going on every week (I think about four committees meeting at least three times a week) and that many of the committee members are volunteers like me. I have only met two people involved face to face, in the old world, and I understand that most of us have never met our colleagues.

Mistakes and structural racism

This speed and young structure is what has led to mistakes being made. The one that sparked CharitySoWhite tweeting on Friday night resulted in a quick and unequivocal apology.  

That was not considered enough and a demand for an explanation followed. I found out about the mistake and the apology on Saturday (after my tweet about a challenging week) and I took the view then that it is not reasonable to ask for an explanation on a Friday night when there has been no investigation. 

We’re dealing with real people (not systems) also living with all the issues of working from home and managing a crisis response. I was being held to account for this in private messages. If the apology was not enough, deemed to be merely PR, then an explanation would just be more ammunition.

The speed of this crisis has meant that recruitment to roles, paid and voluntary, has been through known networks. We know these disadvantage people of colour, women and disabled people.  There has been no time to reflect on that and accept the deficits this creates. 

Networking makes sense when you want to bring people on board quickly and want to be able to trust that the work is going to get done. NET appears to let people get on with things because of that trust.  Mistakes are made.

Unclear remits and lost talent 

I could see that the equity working group (EWG) was iterative, reflective and, for NET, a way to try and get the contacts they needed to reach into BAME-led organisations in particular. The remit was unclear and participants struggled to contribute to the agenda.

The result is that NET has lost the talent, skills and knowledge of high-profile black and brown professionals. It is left with some brown people and reluctance from our networks to join, because of the press reports, social media and general chatter.

NET ends up becoming whiter and less diverse.

I have asked that the EWG is put on a more formal basis as part of the governance structure of NET. It is being renamed as Equity Scrutiny Group and work is ongoing to create terms of reference to ensure this committee reports to the board. The board will have to explain why recommendations are rejected by allocations or any other sub-group. The minutes would be part of the formal record.

I have asked the chair to ensure that the board and staff have race training. Unless you understand how your systems and structures are racist you can’t change them. I am not calling anyone a racist, personally, but the behaviours and ways of thinking we have create or perpetuate the systems.  

Change to the funding formula is on its way

This crisis has shown me that everyone has been late in considering race, in particular, and other equity issues in general, because the diversity of lived experience and knowledge was not present in the rooms when working quickly to address the crisis.  It’s easy to homogenise everything, finding a one size that will fit as many as possible. That approach will always leave people behind.

I have pressed for others organisations to distribute funds, alongside UKCF. An initial £2.5m for BAME-led organisations has been agreed to be distributed through other routes. To be fair to UKCF, where there are BAME-led organisations in their area known to them or reach out to them there is a relationship. Money is going to BAME communities, not evenly across the country and allocations committee is asking for better data on this. Change to the funding formula is on its way.

Data is there but NET is cautious about publishing anything that isn’t triple checked and verified. The data that I have seen reassures me that there is reach to BAME communities and their intersectionality on all other issues such as health and disability, women and children or homelessness.

Place-based model doesn’t work for this

The debate about 20% of the fund being ringfenced to BAME-led organisations is more difficult.  Overall, I support this and am working to try and ensure it is there for NET.  That cannot be evenly distributed across the UK. 

The historic under-investment in BAME-led organisations means that we don’t have them neatly located in every part of the UK. A place-based model doesn’t work for this. 

The exact amount of what is 20% of the fund is still not known. As we all know with appeals a target is not cash in the bank. Some donations come with restrictions the charity has to abide by and that means flexing other donations to build such a fund.

The other issue is whether the fund is actually about ensuring at least 20% of the funds go to BAME communities. BAME-led charities and BAME communities are not the same thing and I want to ensure that BAME-led and BAME communities continue to benefit from distributed funds under the current model and through other funders – it is not either or as we need both.

I am also pressing for funds for disabled people, LGBTQI communities and women and children wherever possible. Some ringfencing may be needed for those led-by organisations too. We are already seeing the stories about disabled people being adversely affected. We could have predicted this better.

There is much more that I could say but this is already too long.  I hope that readers understand better why I remain in the room and my hope is that other PoC, particularly black colleagues, will feel able to join me.

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