How Can Charities Catch Up with Britain’s Increasing Diversity?

In an increasingly diverse Britain, most organisations will have to find more confidence in how to talk and act on race.

Charities are now lagging behind

Charities often emphasise values of inclusion and many would aspire to lead the way in ensuring they reflect the diversity of today’s Britain. Yet, overall, the third sector lags in third place when it comes to recruiting and retaining ethnic minority staff. NCVO reports that 9% of charity employees were from non-white ethnic minority groups in 2020, compared to 12% in both the public and private sectors. The proportion of ethnic minority charity staff had flatlined since the umbrella group began to collect data in 2013. More talk about race is not yet delivering results.

The recent report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (known as the Sewell Report) sparked a polarised debate about race in Britain, but the report itself provides clear evidence that there is systemic bias when people apply for jobs. Candidates with ethnic-sounding names have to submit more applications than other candidates with similar qualifications. The charity sector is not immune from this impact of unconscious bias, though several other factors may contribute to below-average diversity in charity employment.

Practical steps

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions you can pick off a shelf. Organisational size, geographic location and the focus of the work will matter in how different employers respond. But what practical steps could you consider to close this gap between intentions and outcomes?

1. Use open recruitment for roles

Getting the basics right can help you hire a more diverse range of candidates. Self-replicating networks inevitably play a stronger impact whenever there is informal recruitment for jobs. If you are serious about equality and diversity you will need a norm of recruiting roles openly, and resist arguments – whether about speed, convenience, or knowing the perfect candidate already – to make exceptions.

Similarly, a structured application and interview process is more likely than an informal chat to enable your panels to seek to assess all candidates fairly against the role criteria.

But improving diversity is not only about fair treatment for those who apply. Finding effective ways to broaden your pool of applicants can be more challenging. For example, do commitments to equality and diversity sound genuine – or feel like generic cut-and-paste templates? If candidates don’t seem to be applying, what advice can you take from other sectors that may have met with more success?

get most from your trustees

2. Include gender and ethnic diversity in recruitment panels

Though data is limited on which interventions have an impact, evidence from trials in the NHS, the civil service and some private firms suggests that diversity on interview panels can contribute to more gender and ethnic diversity in hiring. There may be different contributory factors – from mitigating implicit bias in making decisions to increasing the confidence of candidates. Where this advice could create a ‘chicken and egg’ challenge, board members and other stakeholders could assist in diversifying your panels.

3. Ensure there is diversity at board level

Over 6 out of 10 of the 500 largest charities had an all-white board in 2018, according to a study by Inclusive Boards. Including a single ethnic minority board member is no panacea, nor a substitute for a sustained equality and diversity strategy. Since Trustee boards play both functional and ambassadorial roles, the absence could send a negative signal both to your potential candidates and other stakeholders. If the barrier is that the board or senior staff are not sure how to identify or find a suitable candidate, that narrowness of networks may impact on recruitment too.

Can our sector be content that the FTSE 100 made a commitment four years ago to phase out all-white boards in 2021 while major charities have yet to adopt a similar goal? The FTSE 100 target is voluntary but it has accelerated change. The number of all-white boards halved from 52 to 24 last year, with several more appointments this year. By 2022, major charities that still have all-white boards may well face more reputational risk given increasing scrutiny of this contrast.

diversity in the charity sector

4. Think about benchmarks and how to track progress

Discussion of how to progress ethnic diversity in charities is often anecdotal. Many organisations have more experience with gender data than ethnic data, where there is uncertainty about what to collect and the terminology to use. Large organisations that do collect ethnicity data can often fail to regularly use it to scrutinise progress over time. Most smaller organisations will lack experience and capacity with data. What your organisation can do is have a reflective conversation about what a reasonable aspiration would be for ethnic diversity. What is the right benchmark– for example, are local or national demographics more relevant comparators? Scrutinising current internal narratives about perceived hurdles – and sense-checking these against the employee experience – can help to focus attention on practicable ways to overcome them.

5. How to tackle unconscious bias

The CV study experiments show conclusively that unconscious bias affects recruitment – but little evidence that unconscious bias training makes an effective difference to countering it. (A 2018 EHRC review of the evidence base found no rigorous attempts to study the impact at all in the UK). Trying to de-bias people – by raising consciousness of unconscious bias – may be less fruitful than trying to de-bias processes, by seeking to remove opportunities for bias to influence outcomes. You can read more on the resources hub maintained by Applied which contains advice on how to do this.

diversity and open recruitment

6. Admit what we don’t know – and collaborate to fill the gaps

You, like many charities, may feel you need more advice on how to make progress in practice. Sector-wide groups will have a key role to play. Key priorities should include more regular (annual) audits to maintain salience and increase accountability; and working across the sector to fill important gaps in the evidence about which interventions work. Translating that evidence into simple, clearer advice as to how smaller charities can apply principles and best practice, without an enormous HR department, would fill one of the most important gaps in how to put good intentions into practice.

Download our guide for practical tips on how to embrace diversity in your recruitment practices. 

Tags: charity sector, charity sector recruitment, diversity, diversity and inclusion, race

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About the author

Sunder Katwala

Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future, an independent non-partisan think-tank, which works on identity and immigration, integration and race.

By engaging both with those who are anxious about cultural identity and economic opportunity, as well as those who already feel confident about our changing society, British Future seeks to broaden confidence in a welcoming and inclusive shared future.

Sunder has previously been an Observer journalist and general secretary of the Fabian Society, and is a regular contributor to national media debates on race, identity and immigration.