What does ethnic diversity really look like in the charity sector?

8 minute read

We know that the leadership of our charities in the UK is not sufficiently ethnically diverse.

It’s confirmed again this year with ACEVO’s Pay and Equalities Survey 2018. Published at the beginning of February, it found that only 3% of charity chief executives who took part were from BAME backgrounds, and that this percentage has actually fallen over the last ten years.

It’s the case that a shamefully small number of civil society CEOs are from a black and minority ethnic background, according to Vicky Browning, Chief Executive of ACEVO. She calls on us to “collectively prioritise action to break down the barriers and bias that exist within the voluntary sector.”

And it’s not only CEOs. Senior management teams and trustee boards are not diverse enough also, with the 2017 edition of Third Sector’s Diversity Report finding that 10% of senior management teams and 10% of trustees of the 50 charities they surveyed were  non-white.


Leadership by example

There are of course many reasons why it matters.

According to our last census in 2011, 14% of the UK’s population is non-white. In London (where most charities are based) that increases to 40%, with similar percentages in cities like Birmingham and Leicester.  How can we hope to represent the society we’re here to support – and how can we speak confidently to our membership – if we’re not like them in our make-up, if we don’t share the same diverse experiences of life in the UK today? Clearly, charities need to reflect the communities they serve.

One way of describing the current climate for charities is “challenging”. Another is difficult. What’s undoubtedly true is that things are changing fast in the charity sector at the same time as there’s negative publicity,  funding cuts, increased demands and a competition with the public sector for talent.

The survivors will be the ones who can think differently, who are agile and can respond to these changing times with new ideas and new ways of working, underpinned by rigorously fair operational practices. To be like that, an organisation must actively prioritise diversity and inclusivity at every level, fostering a climate that is fair, encourages new ideas and debate – and is representative of the breadth of society.

“Charities must not keep recruiting clones of themselves: white, blond, middle-class women.”

As this sample quote from our recent diversity survey illustrates, there’s still a strong legacy of charities being seen as white/ middle-class places.

The demographic breakdown of the sector shows that’s not actually the case – it’s encouraging that the sector is more diverse numerically than the general UK population – but the lack of diversity in leadership and senior management roles is an issue that creates a negative perception overall; it’s a self-perpetuating problem.

You need to be able to see success to believe in it. Within the charity sector, there are a lack of BAME role models who can encourage others starting out to believe it’s a truly diverse and inclusive environment in which you can build your career.

It shouldn’t be like this. To quote Joe Saxton, Driver of Ideas, nfpSynergy; Chair of Parent Teacher Association UK

“Diversity and charities should go together as naturally as clouds and rain. Sadly, they don’t always seem to. Too many charities have rigorous equal opportunities policies but still end up with white, middle class staff, volunteers and supporters. An equal opportunity policy is not the same as an inclusive, empathetic and diverse culture.”

Our diversity surveys

At CharityJob, we wanted to know more about diversity in the sector, and to look at it from the perspective of our candidates and recruiters. To get their views rather than naked statistics.

Are we treating all candidates fairly? How important is diversity to you if you’re working for a charity? Do you feel discriminated against? How important are diversity practices to our recruiters? And how much do they know about putting diversity and equal opportunities policies into practice?

So, we conducted two diversity surveys last summer—one to candidates, one to recruiters—asking them about all aspects of diversity, including ethnic diversity. They’ve given us a unique perspective on what it’s like right now if you’re working for a charity or looking to move into the sector.

And they allow us to compare the experiences of candidates and employees from a BAME background in our sector, with those who identify as being from a white background, as well as with people of all ethnicities.


The candidate mix

Overall, our candidate mix is more ethnically diverse than the general population; mirroring the charity sector as a whole. Of those who replied to the survey, 61% identified as white and 39% identified as BAME (comprised of 19% black, black Caribbean or black British; 11% as Asian or Asian British; 5% from mixed/multiple races; 2% from other ethnic groups and 1% Latin American).

Our biggest surprise to come out of the candidate survey overall, was that 38% of all candidates who replied said they’d suffered age discrimination in the charity sector. That’s more than had experienced gender (26%) or ethnic discrimination (25%). *We look into this in more detail in another article that also looks at how age together with being too experienced can seem a particular problem for job seekers/movers.


A different picture for BAME candidates

But, amongst candidates who identified as being from a BAME background, it’s a different picture with 54% saying they’d experienced discrimination on account of their race/ethnicity, compared to 34% for age and 24% for gender.

So, that’s over half of our BAME candidates.

And our results show that this 54% figure for ethnic discrimination rises acutely for women who are black and older (over 50), showing they feel particularly disadvantaged on account of their ethnic background.

We asked all candidates surveyed to tell us more about their experience of discrimination.

“I have never seen a black female in senior management in a charity and I have been working in the sector for over ten years. As a result I feel unconscious bias which reduces my promotion opportunities.”

“Race discrimination may be subjective. However, it’s very real. In my personal experience, I believe that on several occasions I have been passed over for promotion to people with less experience, knowledge and competence for white colleagues.”

“I’m a black man in a senior management position in a mainstream charity but you always feel that other white British leaders do not want to engage. They will often prefer to speak to your white subordinates with whom they feel they have more in common.”

“I’m Asian and Muslim. I have come across people while working who have shown outright dislike of me from the onset and other more subtle forms of discrimination.”

“Having a name that is clearly ethnic definitely dissuades people. Most people employ people who are similar to them, and companies aren’t run by ethnic females.”

Lots of candidates held similar views to these. They talk of a culture that’s predominantly white, female and middle class and which tends to carry on replacing like with like.


Some causes/charities are more open to BAME candidates than others

There’s a view that some types of role—or some types of charity/cause—are more open to BAME candidates than others.

“My name sounds very British, but as a black woman, I have seen “the look” when I arrive for an interview and I don’t fit the profile they have determined I should be. Also, I wonder if certain types of charities tend to attract certain ethnicities? I worked in care for a while and everyone knows it’s not well paid. Only a handful of the care workers were white British, the remainder were reflective of the waves of immigration into London.”

As well as this speculation that health/social care charities have more BAME employees in low pay roles than other charities, there’s also a view that’s shared in other diversity reports and articles, that routes into some of the more prestigious jobs in the bigger charities—like, for example internships or previous voluntary experience overseas—effectively favour middle class (and therefore more often white) candidates who can afford to work or travel without an income for a period of time. This perpetuates a lack of diversity in career development opportunities within some charities or causes.


Visible diversity measures matter to candidates

Our survey to candidates also found that “knowing that diversity is a focus for the organisation” is very important to more BAME candidates than it is to white candidates (85% compared to 74%) and that “insight into the current state of diversity within the organisation” was “very important” also (80% compared to 65%).

We asked our candidates what charities could do to tackle discrimination in the recruitment process. There were numerous suggestions for ways in which charities and recruiters can improve their reach, attracting applications from all ethnic groups.

“Not judge candidates as not suitable based on a foreign name alone. Not assume candidates do not have the right to work in the UK simply because they’re dark skinned.”

“Make it compulsory on recruiters’ and managers’ CPD plans to attend Diversity and Inclusivity training like www.ncbi.org.uk (fantastic workshops with a difference and where no one feels bad) so it becomes easier to understand how to prevent and tackle discrimination, and effectively recruit a diverse workforce, and supporting BAME employees to progress to positions in senior management/director levels.”

“Advertise jobs where there is a high concentration of people from minority ethnic backgrounds and do more at universities with a similar make up.”

“Have diverse interview panels. My interview panels are almost all white.”


How our recruiters see it

“Diversity should, in other words, be part of a charity’s DNA and identity, and also part of its operating model.” (Green Park: Thinking Differently About Difference; the Value of Diversity in the Social Sector).

To get a better understanding of how much diversity is part of the DNA for charities, we wanted to know more about our recruiters’ knowledge of diversity and inclusivity practices.

It needs to be borne in mind  that most of the recruiters who replied to the survey work for smaller charities (less than 30 people) and that recruitment is generally not their main responsibility (that’s only the case for 12% of them).  They’re employed in a wide range of roles (from CEO, to Office Managers, to Heads of Recruitment) but we had only one reply from someone with a specific remit for diversity, a Diversity Officer working for an international development charity.

Ethnicity diversity is the first thing to come to mind

69% of  recruiters said they prioritised  “sharing your organisation’s attitude to a diverse workforce” above other options given.

On asking them what they understood by diversity, 79% of them said that ethnicity is what comes to mind first (ahead of gender or age).

And when we went on to ask what they were doing to improve diversity, most of their answers assumed we were talking about steps to address ethnic diversity.

Their answers ranged far and wide, covering improvements and changes to recruitment, some mentions of internal reviews and monitoring, and some of staff training. Other replies were more basic, with many stating they had an equal opportunities policy but giving no further detail.

“Merely interviewing candidates who present themselves.

“No specific actions.”

“We have an equal opportunities policy.”

“We already have a diverse team.”

“Not a huge amount – we are aware this is an issue for us.”

“Not much – although this topic has moved up the agenda and we’ve started thinking about what we do and should be doing.”

“At present we are considering blind recruiting and reviewing how we use the information gathered about Equal Opportunities to improve our practice.”

“We have diversity champions at every level of recruitment, advertise across several platforms, welcome applications from BAME applicants and those with a disability, attend job and recruitment fairs.”

Not surprisingly, our most comprehensive answer came from the Diversity Officer,

“Developing our Inclusion and Diversity Strategy to include mainstream EDI considerations into all that we do at the organisation. This involves 8 different work streams from recruitment and selection, to buildings and IT, to leadership and learning, etc. The strategy is sponsored by the CEO and we are recruiting 3 new staff members to support the strategy. Last year we ran a 12 month project to examine how we could address the under-representation of BAME staff. The findings and recommendations from this report have fed into our inclusion and diversity strategy.”

Two-thirds (64%) of recruiters who replied had not published information about the diversity of their organisation, although a significant minority (21%) had.

Overall, our survey to recruiters gives an impression of good intentions, but whilst some clearly see diversity and inclusivity practices as being part and parcel of building a successful organisation, others see them as things to be ticked off in a box marked Equal Opportunities.

But ethnic diversity isn’t something that’s “achieved.”

It can’t be ticked off or done and dusted. Being a properly inclusive organisation needs to be embedded not just in recruitment practices, but in the ways in which we operate at all times. So that we don’t revert back to a default setting that means career progression opportunities favour a “type”, which for our sector is too often white and middle class.

Our survey to candidates shows that whilst the demographic breakdown for ethnic diversity for the charity/voluntary sector holds up against that for the UK population, people working for us (or looking to move into the sector) are experiencing discrimination.

And it’s clear from their comments that a lack of ethnic diversity in top and leadership roles has an effect that doesn’t so much trickle down as flood down to all levels. There’s a persisting impression that we’re led by a too narrow sector of society and that’s hampering career development opportunities for people from all ethnic groups and backgrounds.

In the end – as with all discussions around diversity – it’s about being fair and open-minded. So that we attract the best people to the charity sector by providing an example of a truly diverse, productive culture that’s suitably representative of the communities we support.



Green Park: Thinking Differently About Diversity

Pay and Equality Survey 2018: ACEVO

Third Sector Diversity Survey 2017

Jean Merrylees

Jean Merrylees is a freelance content writer and editor who has previously written for the BBC. Jean is now taking her first steps into the charity sector after spending some time writing for both Diabetes UK & CharityJob.

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