It’s time for us to recognise the barriers that BAME people face in the charity sector

The problem with diversity and ethnicity in the charity sector isn’t going away – we spoke to three people involved in the issue to have a frank conversation on how we can collectively improve the way we hire and promote talent from diverse backgrounds.

Chloe Green | 28th Jun 19
Image of a Muslim woman standing against a fence

Click here to submit your entry to our ‘Top charity digital BAME talent’ list

As part of our campaign to recognise BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) digital talent in the charity sector, we’re asking people to nominate their peers, colleagues or themselves so that we can put a well-deserved spotlight on them for their exceptional work.

But as we’ve started speaking to people in the sector, some issues have come to light that are impossible to ignore – BAME people are not only underrepresented in the charity sector, but many are reporting alarming instances of prejudice, whether unconscious or more deliberate, that are holding them back in their careers. Why? And what can we as a sector do to progress the debate constructively and work towards fixing the diversity issue that clearly exists?

Former CharityComms Editor and charity sector digital veteran Susheila Juggapah anecdotally reports an unfortunate trend of people of colour ‘dropping like flies’ from charity roles.

Juggapah says: “This became such an issue that I spoke to an anonymous contributor, a woman of colour, for an article in CharityComms, who said she’s sick and tired of not being promoted while watching lots of white women being promoted over her and not understanding what she was doing wrong.”

“While it’s impossible to know if this lack of promotion is due to being a BAME person, there is a definite common thread there around promotion. It’s frustrating because it’s hard to know if you haven’t got the skills or if its because how people perceive you. So there is a feeling of being gaslit, especially when you’re few and far between and there’s nobody to talk to about it.”

Unconscious bias – prejudice that is learnt and internalised – is hard to prove, except by the lived experience of those on the receiving end. But the fact remains that not enough BAME people are making it into leadership roles. Many are instead quietly transforming charities behind the scenes, but coming up against barriers when it comes to progression.

“The same pool of people are asked to speak at things because they’re head of fundraising at a big charity,” says Juggapah. “This means it’s very easy to pretend there isn’t anything going on, and that BAME people are represented. The people I know who’ve left were leaders in their own way but none of them were the spokesperson, the top dog.”

Saimah Razak, HR Partner for Amnesty International says: “As a BAME person myself I don’t necessarily want to rock the boat all the time. I’ve worked in organisations where there have been fantastic BAME staff doing an excellent job but they aren’t aware of how much of a role model they are, and maybe they won’t come forward, they think they’re just doing their job.”


An equal start

As Razak explains, the issues often start at the recruitment stage and acknowledging the stigma that can exist within immigrant families with an often negative perception of the charity sector and the pressure to go into more traditional, what are perceived as high-earning roles.

“There’s a separate element really not talked about, at the recruitment stage, that may come about from cultural background,” says Razak. “Telling my parents that I work for a charity, I’m lucky that it’s something they’re proud of, but it’s not a traditional career path. That in itself is a barrier. A lot of the organisations in the charity sector are not doing enough to recruit and be attractive to a whole pool of untapped candidates who are more than able to do the jobs but are perhaps not attracted to it. So there is so much more to be done around how the charity sector is promoted, the platforms it’s promoted on. We need to rethink recruitment strategy as a whole and not just as a tick-box exercise.”

Razak suggests this perception could be even worse in the digital space, where stereotypes abound and roles are all new or emerging, so not yet understood from an outsider perspective.

Ultimately, if we’re serious as a sector about real change then we have to do something differently and take affirmative action.

“Role modelling is absolutely crucial,” says Razak. “As a BAME individual I will look at what that organisation looks like in terms of diversity, and in all honesty I’m going to be more inclined to accept a role where I can see that diversity easily. So I think that role modelling is crucial.”

“I also think positive action is important. While it is legal under UK legislation there is a fear of taking that too far and practising positive discrimination through quotas and other types of organisational reform. I’m definitely not advocating for that but I think positive action can be really great at supporting BAME individuals getting into more senior roles within organisations.”

“Where BAME people are not making it to the upper tiers, that’s telling you something about your internal processes, and when those processes are falling down you need some kind of positive action strategy, whether that’s mentoring or fast track management development programmes.”


Break the silence

Former Chief Executive of the Small Charities Coalition Mandy Johnson, although not herself BAME, has worked to help boost the profile of BAME colleagues and advocate for diversity through her Great Charity Speakers platform.

“I speak from a position of privilege, which means I will never have experienced what some people in the sector have,” says Johnson. “But I’ve also heard from a lot of people who don’t have this privilege. I’ve heard this story a lot of the times – white people are so scared of being called racist that it makes it even harder for people to challenge their negative behaviour. BAME people often have to navigate a system built by white people in order to articulate that they’re being discriminated against.”

“Not only that but the larger the charity is the more they give you training to make you become a certain type of person. I’ve seen charities teach you the way to influence ‘effectively’ but what they’re teaching is  typically white British way of doing things. They’re effectively removing your culture from you.”

As well as working to recognise BAME role models, those of us with privilege need to start having frank conversations about both positive and negative sides of the issue. As Juggapah argues, we need to get past this hurdle and ‘get comfortable talking about race’ instead of the common inclination to shut down.

“If you think about it from a BAME perspective,” says Razak, “When you’re asking people to talk positively about this there is going to be that barrier because this is the thing that’s perhaps always held you back. So it’s hard to open up and talk about that same characteristic in a positive way.”

“Getting the message out there and exposure and representation is so important because you can’t be what you can’t see. Until I see someone I wont realistically think that’s a path that I can take.”

“But there’s no reason why tech and these issues can align. What digital platforms are there to reduce unconscious bias and are you promoting them? Tech itself such as online tools and resources can be used in a really proactive way as part of the solution.”