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Diversity in the voluntary sector: we’re only just getting started

By Amina Memon 3 July 2018

Over the last six months I’ve been working with NPC to explore what has hampered diversity in the voluntary sector, through interviews with a sample of senior leaders. Our research suggests there still isn’t a clear understanding of the value of diversity in the voluntary sector or how to have a conversation about it.


The term ​diversity is used in ​a very woolly way​ and ​some people are very imprecise in what we mean by it. We can’t increase diversity unless we are clearer about what we want to achieve.


Several interviewees in our research commented on the difficulty of talking about race when it came to discussing diversity. It seems the unease reflects a concern of being labelled racist, something that does not sit well with the perception that charities are run by nice people.


The biggest challenge to diversity in the charity sector is the attitude of charities, namely that “we are nice people with liberal values” and diversity simply does not cross their mind as being something applicable to their sector.



We do not know how to respond to remarks that we are racist. Our response is push away from having the dialogue.


A fear of the word ‘race’ manifests as an emotional disconnect and distancing from the debate about diversity. Reni Eddo-Lodge in her provocative text Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race refers to this distancing as wilful ignorance of structural racism and a lack of empathy for non-white people who have not had the same societal privilege. To see it in action, consider the publication of Penguin’s new diversity policy, that new authors and hires should reflect British society by 2025, which resulted in one ‘whining elite’ accusing Penguin of being ‘drunk on virtue’ and putting the diversity card before literary excellence.

Fear not only shuts down conversations, it can inhibit our learning.  Several references were made in our research to the role of training to make people aware of their cognitive biases. This can be a good starting point but we are all prone to bias regardless of our training and expertise.  Bias can only be tackled by understanding the conditions which are likely to foster it and actively pursuing strategies to reduce it.

We know from the organisational psychology literature that silos based on an individual’s ethnic background, gender, age, ability and so forth may increase perceived differences between groups. Instead inclusive and collaborative ways of working in mixed groups will encourage contact and learning about people as individuals and reduce stereotyping based on group identity.

The natural desire to find like-minded individuals has led to old boys’ networks. This is not the way to recruit. In the wake of Brexit and increased nationalism it is more important than ever to counter stereotypes by interacting more with more people who are not like us and providing them with opportunities to become future role models for diversity.

Charities will need to invest in diversity before they can see the benefits. Our research suggests this will require senior leaders to take responsibility for and ensure accountability for diversity and inclusion practices. To attract candidates from backgrounds where a career in the charity sector would not be the norm (for example, South Asians) charities should provide professional development opportunities, role models and non-hierarchical support schemes such as reverse mentoring where junior colleagues mentor their seniors so that they can learn from them.

Improving outcomes for beneficiaries is central to the work of charities. Lessons are being learned about the importance of being able to identify with and reach out to grassroot community groups at times of crisis as seen in Red Cross’s experience of Grenfell Tower. More case studies of this type will help the voluntary sector build an evidence base to support having a diverse workforce that can better connect with the community it serves.

I’ve only looked at the diversity debate in terms of race here but gender, socio-economic background, age, disability and life experience are bring different ways of thinking that can boost creativity and reduce group-think.

The conversation has started but it’s now time for the voluntary sector to set an example by creating an inclusive space and one where the workforce and practices reflect the diversity in British society.

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