Shrochis Karki: Funders must err on the side of inclusion to reach diverse communities

17 Aug 2023 Voices

Shrochis Karki from Unltd discusses how grantmakers can navigate challenges to become more inclusive in their funding…

melita / Adobe Stock

Like many charitable funders, Unltd is working towards becoming more equitable and inclusive in its grantmaking. 

Unltd has supported thousands of ventures as the leading foundation for social entrepreneurs — from organisations tackling poor educational attainment to those addressing food insecurity. 

But addressing the needs of the most marginalised communities and solving the complex challenges we face as a country requires the empowerment of social entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds.

We launched the Social Enterprise Support Fund in 2020 as part of our commitment to equity and diversity.

Working in partnership with the National Lottery Community Fund, the School for Social Entrepreneurs, Resonance, Key Fund, and Big Issue Invest, we had a simple objective: we’d work collaboratively to fund and support social entrepreneurs from traditionally underserved communities to recover through the pandemic.

Our targets were ambitious – we’d aim to award over 50% of our grants to organisations led by people from a Black, Asian, minority ethnic background and/or people with disabilities. 

As we opened the fund to applications, we quickly started to see a huge volume of applications from organisations led by people from our target groups. In total, an average of a third of applications in each of the UK’s regions we received for the fund came from diverse-led ventures. 

In London, where the Black, Asian and/or minority ethnic population baseline is 40%, we achieved a staggering 71% of applications from organisations led by people from this group.

Similarly, the West Midlands and East Midlands regions outstripped their baselines of 17% and 11% respectively, attracting 46% Black, and 35% Asian, and/or minority ethnic applications.

This huge outpouring of interest in the fund from diverse-led ventures, and our careful approach to weighting applications meant we significantly exceeded our awards goal. In total, we awarded 57% of our grants to organisations led by people from a Black, Asian, minority ethnic background and/or people with disabilities. 

Hurdles to overcome

Despite this success, implementing equity and inclusion through the fund was not without its hurdles. We grappled with complex issues such as defining “diverse-led ventures”, embedding intersectionality in our approach, and handling data gaps when applicants chose not to disclose their demographic information. 

Whilst the first of these challenges — defining “diverse-led ventures” — might seem straightforward, practical questions arose — such as how ventures with a diverse senior leadership team but a less diverse board of directors, or vice versa, should count. 

As we considered how to embed intersectionality, we grappled with how to assess applications from ventures led by individuals with overlapping experiences of discrimination or teams composed of individuals with diverse experiences of discrimination. 

The most challenging question we encountered was how to deal with “prefer not to say” responses to demographic questions. Based on our privacy commitments, we included the option of “prefer not to say” when it came to sharing demographic data.

However, our mandate was to target support to social entrepreneurs from our inclusion groups, and demographic data was therefore a crucial part of our scoring matrix. This created a challenging logistical problem — how could we assess applications lacking the relevant data while maintaining our commitment to inclusion and respecting our applicants' privacy?

Our approach: Prioritising inclusion

As we navigated these challenges, we adopted an overarching principle — to err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion. Aware of the limitations and potential inaccuracies in the data, we were determined not to let any eligible applicant miss out.

In practical terms, this meant advocating for detailed ethnicity data where possible to discern any disadvantaged groups within our broad categorisations. In our scoring system, if a venture met our inclusion criteria on any one metric, we deemed it as meeting our overall inclusion criteria.

This strategy, while inclusive, limited our understanding of intersectionality. For instance, if an application stated that one of three senior leadership team members was Black and another was disabled, we presumed these descriptions referred to two different individuals and scored the venture as if two out of three of its leaders met our inclusion criteria. 

Over time, our approach to dealing with the “prefer not to say” option also evolved. While we initially considered treating this response as a data gap, we eventually decided to lower the total score against which applications were evaluated instead, ensuring that ventures were not penalised for choosing this option.  

As the charity sector is still deciphering why some applicants choose not to disclose demographic information, we firmly believe that significant decisions should not be based on unexplored assumptions. We recognised that some social entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities are reluctant to disclose their identities for a variety of reasons — including past experiences of discrimination. 

Our journey of learning and constant improvement continues. The challenges we've faced demonstrate the complexity of operationalising even well-established principles of equity and inclusion. For the Social Enterprise Support Fund, we've chosen a simple but proactive stance, favouring inclusion over exclusion.

The challenges collectively facing the charity sector as organisations work towards equity and inclusion are intricate and often require imperfect and iterative solutions. 

As we continue on this journey, we’re eager to learn from others navigating the same path, as we all adapt and grow towards a fairer, healthier, and more sustainable sector and society. 

By Shrochis Karki, director of impact and influence at Unltd

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