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Heads and hearts: The challenge of real change

By Karen Sheldon

4 minute read

This piece is part of our series, Walking the talk, which explores the diversity of the UK’s charities and foundations, with perspectives from both in and outside the sector. Find the full collection here. 

 The British Red Cross is part of the world’s largest humanitarian movement. We put seven compelling and fundamental principles at the heart of everything we do. These include unity, neutrality and impartiality. A pretty solid foundation for getting diversity and inclusion right, right?

Well, yes and no.

Those fundamental principles, so inherent to who we are, are embedded in a history dating back to the battle of Solferino in 1859 where one man saw the need to look beyond the colour of the wounded soldiers’ uniforms and just treat the injuries. Today our thousands of amazing volunteers and staff deliver services and respond to crises with the same commitment to respond to human need, regardless of who that person is. For nearly 150 years we have been the ultimate deliverer of equal treatment to all.

But therein lies the rub. To be relevant, welcoming and responsive to everyone—the people in crisis, educational audiences, and our volunteers, staff and donors—we need to reach and engage with people as individuals. Individuals with different backgrounds, qualities, abilities and needs.

This presents a significant challenge from a resource, process and capacity point of view. But the bigger challenge is to persuade our lovely people that behaviour change is needed. The sort of behaviour change which only comes from a genuine recognition that active effort is needed to harness the efforts of all sorts of people and an often revelatory appreciation that despite our best intentions, our unconsciously biased interactions with others can have a negative impact.

So, how to address these challenges of the head and, crucially, of the heart? Luckily, our Board and Executive Leadership Team agreed to tackle this head on. They backed an extensive Inclusion and Diversity programme to kick start change over a three-year period (2017-2019). This is led by a permanent Inclusion and Diversity Steering group and supported by the Diversity Group; our consultative body of a diverse mix of volunteers and staff.

Heading into the last six months of the current programme, I’m in a reflective mood. On the head side, we’ve made significant progress integrating diversity considerations into the decisions we make, the work we develop and the way we do things.

This has included increasing access to meaningful diversity data, which informs our workforce planning and provides managers with an insight into the experience of different demographic groups. We’ve introduced name blind shortlisting to our recruitment process, reducing the risk of recruiting managers applying gender and racial bias to selecting candidates for interview. We’re incorporating diversity and unconscious bias into our learning offer; with a mandatory induction module for all volunteers and staff integrated into recruitment, selection and management training. And we are embedding a new and robust equality impact assessment process into our policies, projects and decisions to anticipate and mitigate any negative impact on different demographic groups. We’re also improving our IT and building accessibility.

But what about the hearts?

I’ve been on high alert for tangible signs of all our diversity and inclusion activity resulting in more confident and courageous diversity conversations. I’ve been encouraged by some of the comments in response to our presence at Pride and to blogs by individuals sharing their experiences. But in terms of our people’s everyday experience, of managers feeling confident about addressing issues or actively encouraging diverse perspectives to inform our work, I’m not yet feeling it.

This provides us with a deep and embedded culture challenge; one which is proving tough to shift.

So what can we do? We certainly don’t think we have all the answers, but we are trying our hardest to create opportunities for people to speak up and have their voices heard. Our diversity (BAME, disability, gender, LGBT+) networks are growing and becoming more influential, making those difficult conversations less easy to avoid. Our monthly internal diversity e-bulletin provides an opportunity to explore diversity and inclusion issues and our internal leadership development training promotes an inclusive approach.

Will all this have an impact? Our biannual internal engagement survey is coming up which will help us understand where we might have achieved progress and where progress is still needed. It certainly feels like there is still some way to go.

Karen Sheldon

Karen Sheldon is currently responsible for implementing the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda at the British Red Cross, across operational and support services, ensuring commitment at every level and reaching service users, volunteers and staff. She has a background in youth engagement and international volunteering. 

Karen Sheldon

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