Diversity in the Charity Sector – Where Are We Now?

It’s been well over a year since we asked our candidates and recruiters what they thought about diversity in the charity sector. A year that’s too often seen failures in diversity making headlines around the world.

From the first gender pay gap results that showed an imbalance in the upper quartiles; to Comic Relief’s use of celebrity reports; to the lessons we’re still learning in the aftermath of the Grenfell Fire. These and other news stories challenge us in the charity sector to step up the pace of change so that we’re better at representing and supporting our diverse population.

And there’s a will to do it. Since we ran our own surveys, a host of diversity reports and initiatives have come out from sector organisations like ACEVO, the NPC, Third Sector and Bond. And then there’s the Institute of Fundraising’s Change Collective launched last year. Its Manifesto for Change sets out how, by working alongside partners, they will transform the fundraising profession to build:

“ …an equal, diverse and inclusive profession, where no matter what your personal characteristics…you will be ‘the right fit’ for the fundraising profession. ”

So how can we achieve this, not just for fundraising, but for the sector as a whole?

Let’s take a look at where we were last year

At the end of 2017, we surveyed our vast network of candidates and recruiters to gauge where the sector stood in terms of diversity. What made our report stand out from others at the time was that we were asking what people working—or looking for work— in our sector had observed or experienced. We were after their personal take on this rather than stats.

Here’s what we found…

Diversity in the charity sector

We were left with an impression of a sector that’s well-intentioned but still rooted in its heritage of philanthropy, of “haves” who help “have not’s”. We’re too white, particularly in leadership, and whilst we have a lot of women—and more mature women—they’re not getting the opportunities for career progression throughout the full breadth of their working lives.

How recruitment and employment practices are building a more diverse workforce

Charities that are committed to becoming more diverse and inclusive places of work are doing a lot more than just sticking to equal opportunities law. They’re practising open recruitment and that means:

  • Encouraging all hiring managers to test their own assumptions about the kind of person they want. It’s so tempting to look for the “right fit” for a job or team but in truth, this often means you’re just getting more of the same. An inclusive team will celebrate difference whether that’s gender, ethnicity, social background or interests outside of work.
  • Ending unpaid internships.
  • Removing the criminal records tick box from the first stage of the application process and only ever including it if the job requires a DBS check.
  • Promoting that you’re an equal opportunities employer who welcomes applications from people with disabilities.
  • Focusing on the language used in jobs ads to remove inherent bias. Phrases like “a young team”, “digital native”, “bubbly self-starter” can all be off-putting and exclude good candidates. Text tools like Textio or Gender Decoder can remove gender bias from your ads.
  • Thinking about where you focus your search to encourage applications from a wider demographic. Consider school and college leavers, care leavers and people who’ve been in the criminal justice system. Include deprived areas where young people may have no idea of the type of roles available in charities.


diversity in the charity sector

But I’m not racist, so surely the charity can’t be?

But of course, there’s always an inherent bias that needs to be considered when it comes to attracting and recruiting a more diverse workforce.

“ The belief that we as individuals, could not be racist, and by extension, that our organisations can’t be either, is one of the most serious obstacles that exists in making racial equality a reality. ”

ACEVO, Racial Diversity in the Charity Sector

This can be such a bugbear for our sector as we think we’re “good”. We don’t believe we’re prejudiced.

But this vision of ourselves is undermined by the reality that persists in charities where things like where we advertise, a lack of diverse role models and a tendency to overlook the potential of people working for you already—can mean you’re recruiting from a too limited talent pool and replacing like with like.

Tackling a lack of ethnic diversity in charity leadership

Our survey results chimed with those of other organisations like Third Sector and ACEVO in highlighting how the lack of ethnic diversity in the leadership of charities is a real problem. And things haven’t measurably improved since then.

“ This year’s Pay and Equalities Survey has yet again found that a shamefully small number of civil society CEOs are from a black and minority ethnic background. This figure has remained pretty much static since we started publishing pay and equality data and it will not change unless CEOs and boards collectively prioritise taking actions to break down the barriers and bias that exist within the sector. ”

Vicky Browning, CEO of ACEVO 2018

If there is any good news to be had here, it’s that the lack of ethnic diversity in the leadership of charities is an acknowledged problem and there’s a determination to address it.

In 2018, ACEVO and the IOF joined forces to call on civil society leaders to improve racial diversity in charity leadership by asking charities to sign up to leadership principles in order to “prevent groupthink, generate more income, operate more creatively and attract the best talent”. And so create “stronger, more resilient charities”.  Among those to have signed up to their Diversity Charter for Charity Leadership are Marie Curie, British Red Cross, Barnardos.

Ethnic pay reporting for all sectors could make a difference

The charity sector is far from alone in having a lack of ethnic diversity in leadership.

In October 2018 Prime Minister Theresa May announced a series of measures to tackle the problems that BAME people still face in their careers, specifically when it comes to pay and progression. And on the 1st of March this year, the Race at Work Charter was opened to look into whether organisations should have to disclose how people from different ethnic backgrounds are paid. It could lead to ethnic pay reporting becoming mandatory in the way that it is for gender pay.

For our sector, ethnic pay reporting will help highlight where there’s a discrepancy in career progression within charities for people from a BAME background compared to their white colleagues—as well as in leadership roles.

diversity in charity sector salaries

But what about gender diversity?

We’re a female dominated industry, there’s no question about that, but many of the candidates who replied to our survey in 2017 felt that this wasn’t reflected in senior management.

“ .. among our board we have 55% men and 45% women, among our staff we have 75% women and 25% men. ”

Still, the picture for the sector overall shows an improving landscape and good reason to feel optimistic with ACEVO’s 2017 Pay and Equality Survey showing that the number of women CEOs in the charity sector outnumbered men by 58% to 40% for the first time ever. And 2018’s survey saw further improvement, with “a high number of female respondents…alongside a significant reduction in the gender pay gap and no disability pay gap.” (Vick Browning, CEO of ACEVO).

A closer look at gender pay gap reporting

This is the second year of gender pay gap reporting, and the top 50 charities have already decreased their gap for the average salary from 18% to 11% in favour of men, according to the Charity Finance 100 Index.

It was also a better process this year as charities can now give a supporting statement alongside their figures. So, Save the Children narrowed its mean pay gap from 18% in favour of men to 11% and was able to explain that they’d achieved it by “updating our training for line managers, introducing training module on unconscious bias to ensure our interview skills training is values-based.”

But, let’s not go data-mad here and chase figures—at heart this is about fairness and the policies and practices that allow it. The gender pay gap figures can be a blunt instrument and need to be seen in context.

As Sam Smethers from the Fawcett Society has said, the important thing is that gender pay gap reporting has started the conversation.

“ For many employers it is the first time that they have even looked at the differences in men's and women's pay in their organisation. But we also need to tackle all the causes of the pay gap—introduce more generous leave for fathers that they can afford to take, make every job flexible by default, unless there is a strong business case not to do so and deal with any outstanding pay discrimination that employers may find. ”

Sam Smethers, Fawcett Society

And much of this can be resolved at the recruitment stage. We need to make sure that our ads and recruitment practices aren’t inherently biased towards employing women in junior or entry-level (and so lower paid) roles. Again, it’s about checking for gender bias in our wording of ads as well as not having an image in mind of the kind of person who would fit that team.

The age paradox in the charity sector

The big surprise to come out of our diversity survey in 2017 was that so many (40%) of our candidates felt they’d experienced age discrimination in the charity sector, and that in most cases it was for being seen as too old for a job or a promotion. Given that the demographic for the sector overall is older, we hadn’t expected this. In a sector that puts so much value on experience, it’s strange to think that too much experience (i.e. age/life experience) could be a bad thing.

The British Council is a shining example when it comes to recognising the contribution of older workers, led by the pioneering work of their Head of Equal Opportunity and Diversity, Dr Fiona Bartels-Ellis:

“ We have lots of discussions about age, we recognise that some of our workers want to work longer and retire later and we have found this is true of some of our female workers who may still have dependents to care for and need the financial income. ”

Dr Fiona Bartels-Ellis, Head of Equal Opportunity and Diversity at the British Council

They’re careful about the wording of job ads and vigilant about the choice of imagery they use to promote themselves—making sure it shows an inclusive working environment with all ages and ethnicities, as well as disabled staff.

age diversity in the charity sector

The need to accept the business case for diversity

“ There is now good evidence of the business case for diversity. Diverse teams are more creative, smarter, healthier and less biased. Diversity brings innovation. A diverse and inclusive board can better understand its client base and improve the ability of the board and the organisation to adapt as new challenges emerge and evolve. ”

NPC, Walking the Talk on Diversity

We know that the charity sector is a uniquely rewarding place to build a career. It succeeds because of the talented, dedicated people who work in it. But at the same time, we’re not diverse enough in our make-up and leadership. And whilst that’s the case, we can’t always know how to support our communities in the ways they want support—or represent them effectively. We’re guilty of groupthink and need to cultivate properly inclusive working environments that encourage new ideas and ways of working.

Charity leaders need to not just understand that diversity is important—but need to fully accept the business case for it and press ahead with open recruitment policies and employment practices that will create it.

Tags: charity sector, diversity, open recruitment, recruitment process

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About the author

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.