Jodie McNally: No more talk – we must act now to increase diversity in the charity sector

30 Jun 2022 Voices

How can charities employ more young people from low-income backgrounds? EY Foundation's interim chief executive discusses

I’ve been fortunate to work in charities for the last 19 years. It’s full of talented, dedicated, inspirational people, who achieve great things for many critical causes. But I’ve noticed too that it is a sector that seems to attract a certain type of person – employees who often don’t always represent the people they serve. I’m a white female from a working-class background who is the interim chief executive for the EY Foundation, a charity that has ambitious targets to increase the diversity of our team – but we have a long way to go. And the evidence suggests we aren’t the only ones. 

A review of published research by Bayes Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness concluded that the non-profit sector has lower levels of diversity across ethnicity and socio-economic background than other sectors of the economy. What’s more, diversity does not appear to be prioritised as an issue that should be addressed, with the absence of a sector-wide push to take ambitious action, particularly on embedding good diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) practice to attract and retain young people as employees.

Lack of young people from low-income backgrounds in sector

In response, it’s fair to ask: "How many people from low-income backgrounds want to work in the sector?" As a charity that supports young people from low-income backgrounds into work, we are especially interested in their answer to this question. So, we commissioned a nationwide survey by Savanta/ComRes with 1,000 16-24-year-olds from households with an income under £16,000. 

This showed that while only 7% currently work in the sector, 40% said they would be interested in a career in the sector. What’s more, 42% of respondents said they trust and have confidence in charities. And 70% of young people know they could pursue a career in professional functions such as human resources, legal services, strategy and governance, finance and communication. 

So why isn’t this interest in the sector translating into a more diverse workforce? The survey found the most common reasons identified by those who wouldn’t consider working in the sector included: 25% don't know where to search for and apply for jobs, 24% think there are poor opportunities to develop a career, 23% think there is a poor variety of different job roles in the charity sector and 20% believe charities do not pay staff fairly or offer good benefits and flexibility.

Sector must become more accessible

In response, leaders in the sector must look at how we can make ourselves more accessible to a broader range of young people and address the barriers that have been identified.

As a starting point, the survey flagged several ways to encourage consideration of a career in the charity sector. This included: improve pay and benefits (51%), better understanding of the job opportunities available (35%), clearer progression routes (24%) and knowing where to search for and apply for vacancies (23%).

Our response shouldn’t default to commissioning more research or setting new targets. The time for talking is over. We must look at why existing ambitions to become more diverse aren’t leading to change at the speed we want. The focus should move on from relying on goal setting, to taking action that secures meaningful change. 

Some of the areas we’d like to explore include: 

  • Co-designing a programme with young people to help them develop the skills and experience to prepare them for working in the sector. 
  • Developing practical guidance and toolkits that are promoted across the sector to overcome the barriers that have been identified. 
  • Working with leaders across the sector to reach out and engage with young people from low-income backgrounds to tackle the misconceptions about working in the sector. 

The EY Foundation has as much to learn as any other charity and we want to collaborate with organisations who share our commitment to tackling this issue and welcome the opportunity to develop new actions that achieve a meaningful impact across the sector. If this sounds like you, then please reach out and get in touch.

Jodie McNally is interim chief executive of the EY Foundation

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