Charities are being hamstrung by widespread structural racism
92 per cent of trustees on charity boards and 94 per cent of charity chief executives are white | Alamy
We have all been reminded of the importance of the charity sector over the past year, as it has supported communities through a time of unprecedented need.
While there are many examples of good practice in the sector, charities are being hamstrung by widespread structural racism. The quality and efficacy of programmes delivered by the sector have been negatively impacted as a result.
Over the past year, #CharitySoWhite – a grassroots campaign group led by people of colour – has documented countless examples of racism in the sector, with devastating impacts on people of colour and marginalised groups.* This all comes at a time when charities are being asked to do more with less, and as government looks to civil society to support recovery in communities across the country – creating all the more imperative to solve this problem.
While14 per cent of people in the UK are from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, the proportion of BAME employees in the charity sector is significantly lower, at just nine per cent. This is a lower proportion than both the public and private sectors (both at 11 per cent).
At senior levels, the problem is even worse – 92 per cent of trustees on charity boards and 94 per cent of charity chief executives are white. People of colour working in the sector are significantly more likely to work in junior roles, with BAME employees representing just 5.3 per cent of senior leadership roles overall.
The charity sector should be embracing the lived experience of people of colour to design effective programmes which reach communities most in need of support
This lack of diversity across the sector means people of colour are excluded from meaningful decision-making in charities. This is particularly concerning given the disproportionate inequalities people of colour face in Britain. It is well documented that people of colour are more likely to experience inequalities in housing, health outcomes and in employment. The pandemic has compounded many of these inequalities further still.
The charity sector should be embracing the lived experience of people of colour to design effective programmes which reach communities most in need of support. However, strategic decisions in many charities are still overwhelmingly made by white senior leaders who are removed from these communities. When people of colour who work in charities share their perspectives, they are often ignored. #CharitySoWhite has received countless disclosures from people of colour in the sector who have recounted experiences of being dismissed and sidelined by senior leaders.
Beyond individual charities, structural racism has seen voluntary organisations led by people of colour with direct lived experience consistently sidelined. In a recently published article I co-authored for the IPPR’s Progressive Review journal, we reflected on how the marginalisation of grassroots BAME-led voluntary and community sector organisations during the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire hampered efforts to support marginalised groups unlikely to come forward to authorities.
Structural racism in the charity sector also seriously impacts people of colour who work for non-profits. #CharitySoWhite has consistently raised examples of poor practice where people of colour who work for charities have faced direct experiences of racism and discrimination. This has led some people of colour to leave the sector entirely.
These issues are all the more important as we recover from the pandemic. Recovery isn’t just about levelling up the economy; it’s also about levelling up communities. Civil society will play a crucial part in that task, but its efforts will be ineffective if we fail to take meaningful steps towards anti-racism in the sector.
Parliamentarians have a leading role to play in promoting good practice in their local communities. MPs should proactively engage with people of colour in their constituencies, to understand their experiences with charities. They must also act as critical friends to charities – asking important questions about the steps they are taking to tackle racism and centre people of colour in decision-making.
We won’t solve this problem overnight, but a reimagined anti-racist charity sector is possible – and is key to building back better communities around the principles of fairness and equity.
[*The term “people of colour’ is used throughout this article to describe individuals who are racialised and not considered white. There are other marginalised groups such as the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community, who also face racism in the charity sector. Where data I have cited uses the term BAME I have used this term for accuracy.]
Emeka Forbes is an organiser at #CharitySoWhite, political consultant and trustee
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