Does your charity have a diversity mindset?

Posted in Ask the Experts

Does your charity have a diversity mindset?

Does your charity have a diversity mindset?

Everybody, it seems, wants to know how to make their charity more diverse. Nobody though, seems to know how to go about achieving this…

The truth is that no-one has exclusive claim to any supposed right way to ‘do’ diversity in charities, or in any other sector for that matter. There are examples which look strong and which we support, but there’s no consensus on whether these might work, nor any agreement about how we can evaluate them.

To some extent this is because of the unique features of ‘diversity’ as a concept (that I will get into momentarily) but, even if there are no easy answers, the fact that more and more people are asking the question is encouraging.

How diverse are we really?

In 2016, as part of our State of the Sector research programme, we found that charities agreed that diversity at board level mattered but there was less clarity on the benefits. Just 19% of respondents felt diversity expanded the talent at board level, 17% felt it made charities better at serving their beneficiaries and 23% felt it improved decision making.

Since then, attitudes seem to have changed. Late last summer we followed up on our State of the Sector research with a series of interviews, targeted, again, at senior charity leaders. Rather than dispute the value of diversity they, quite overwhelmingly, argued that the sector has a long way to go in this area.

Interviewees felt that the charities need to think more creatively and ambitiously, moving beyond the ‘usual’ measures of diversity. We found a perception that focusing on the protected characteristics such as race and gender at the exclusion of other factors is just legal compliance, rather than diversity, which I would agree with. But respondents felt that at a very basic level, more investment into charity sector diversity is needed, as has been the case in the private sector.

What is diversity?

What should this investment look like? It’s hard to say, in part because it’s hard to know what we mean by diversity. I’d go so far as to say diversity is not just one thing; it’s a lot of things. The word describes a loose set of people, practices and ideas. Because the borders of this group are so loose, it’s hard to point at instances or organisations which are ‘doing’ it in a complete or even satisfactory way. This can make it hard for charities, and other organisations to know what to do and whether they are doing ‘enough’.

Because diversity is so broad as a category, I suspect there will never be one thing you can do to unite and address all the issues it represents. For that reason, I’m suggesting people think less about doing diversity and the processes they may or may not put in place and more about having a ‘diversity mindset’.

Mindset versus process

A mindset, as opposed to a process, is flexible. It has an orientation, (pro diversity) and this orientation should result in outcomes which match (it is meaningless to say you have a diversity mindset but never act on it.) A mindset is not an ‘if A therefore B’ type rule, but a set of principles which can guide a range of interactions or behaviours. Unlike a process, it can adapt to whatever input it receives, applying its principles thoughtfully to each unique person, thing or state of affairs.

A process, by contrast, requires uniform inputs and puts out similar looking outcomes. This is not to damn processes; their inflexibility is their great strength because they get results. They can be a useful tool for achieving diversity type outcomes. But having some processes that promote diversity is not sufficient to be ‘doing’ it.

So, what does a diversity mindset look like in reality? By its very nature it’s hard to point to, but I’m going to share a couple of elements of our thinking that I hope you can take away with you and use in your work.

1)     Be concerned with fairness but recognise that you are arbitrating on it from one particular, and limited, perspective.

The above might seem obvious, it’s an easier thing to say once than it is to hold in your mind all the time.

Part of doing that is awareness of what you don’t know. You can start with relatively obvious things. I don’t know what it is like to be a woman, for example. I can try to be mindful of this in every aspect of your working life which I have a reasonable expectation will affect others. You should also recognise that it’s a big world and there are lots of things you don’t even know you don’t know.

2)     Communication and asking questions are paramount.

You can’t be fair by just making assumptions about peoples’ experience, though it is legitimate to try and think things through regardless of your own level of experience. A diverse mindset is inquisitive. It recognises the tendency we all have to put our own thoughts and ideas on a pedestal and resists that, at least as far as it concerns other people’s experience.

Changing minds isn’t easy and everyone within charities needs help to get it right. We obviously can’t totally eschew processes and tools to help people get there so we are currently working with some of the leading organisations in the voluntary sector to develop a framework to help charities apply a diversity mindset at every stage of an employee’s journey, from potential hire to established member of staff.

Our ideas are preliminary, and open for discussion. We’re looking for more partners and people who are willing to fund this work and we hope to have many conversations about this and what’s useful. As a sector we’ve come a long way from three years ago, and people needing to be convinced on the value of diversity. In three years’ time, by working together, we might have the tools to remove any final impediments to a truly diverse sector.

By Nathan Yeowell, head of policy, NPC

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