4. How diversity is viewed by organisations

This section looks at organisational understandings and perceptions of diversity and volunteering and how this sits within their context and structure.

Most of the findings for this section come from workshop data collected January to March 2020.

4.1 How diversity is talked about and what it means to organisations

Organisations use a variety of different terms to talk about this topic, with diversity and inclusion most commonly used.

Qualitative data gathered in this research from staff and leaders of organisations tells us about what diversity, particularly in relation to volunteering, means to them. Workshop participants described numerous terms that they use, including diversity, inclusion, equality, belonging, respect, equity, liberation, inclusivity, EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion), openness, differentiation, community engagement, hard to reach groups, people seldom heard, disadvantaged and overcoming barriers.

Diversity and inclusion are the most commonly used terms, but in many organisations multiple terms are used.

Some organisations distinguish terms more clearly than others – and use them in different ways.

There is wide variation between organisations’ use and understanding of terms in relation to diversity. Sometimes this varies within organisations and between people as well. For example, different teams and staff members may have different levels of understanding of diversity. If an organisation is not clear about its use of these terms or what diversity means to them, there will likely be misunderstandings and misconceptions internally.

Organisations who have a diversity or inclusion strategy have likely had internal discussions, analysis of data and planning sessions that have mapped out issues such as who they are referring to when talking about diversity and what the term means for volunteering.

Some respondents felt that their volunteer programme or opportunities were ‘open to everyone’ and were not clear about what diversity might look like within their volunteering base or had not been able to explore this further.

One of the key distinctions some organisations made was between diversity and inclusion (inclusion being used in a wider sense of creating a welcoming and open environment for everyone who volunteers). Two separate respondents spoke about the importance of inclusion, which they said results in diversity.

For some organisations, diversity meant that volunteers are a reflection of who the service users or stakeholders of the organisation are.

Talking about diversity is a ‘starting point’ – but there are differing levels of confidence when it comes to knowing how to talk about issues relating to diversity.

Most of the organisations and staff we spoke to felt that it was important to their organisation to talk about diversity. However, there was variation in the confidence levels of staff as to how to support these discussions internally and with volunteers.

Some organisations at very early stages of addressing diversity issues lack confidence around terminology and have fears about ‘getting it wrong’ stemming from concerns about causing offence. Using the ‘right’ language came up repeatedly as a barrier to progress and some volunteer managers clearly feel they need more support, knowledge and training around this issue.

Organisations view diversity in relation to their values, actions and outcomes.

When participants talked about what diversity (and related terms) meant to their organisation, three main perspectives stood out.

Some viewed diversity in terms of their organisational values – and how these values are reflected in the organisation’s. For example, recognising, accepting and embracing people’s differences (across a range of different factors) and being welcoming, inclusive and friendly as an organisation. This also includes organisations that see EDI as part of their wider commitment to social justice and equality.

Others focused on the actions and approach that their organisation undertook in addressing issues in this area, for example through gathering monitoring data, delivering specific programmes or initiatives, having a team leading on this area, or having a diversity strategy.

Others looked at it in terms of outcomes or what ‘getting it right’ enabled them to achieve as an organisation – for example, providing services in an accessible manner and being more relevant to the wider community, or meeting statutory duties.

Organisations recognise that diversity includes a wide range of factors.

When reflecting on what diversity (and related terms) means, most organisations acknowledged that it covers many different aspects such as age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability and religion, but also more widely diversity of thought and background, experience, and education. However, to some organisations, diversity has a narrower focus. For some, it is used as a shorthand term for ethnic minorities, while others see it as encompassing only age and gender or creating accessible spaces for disabled people. While diversity is not a synonym for ethnic minority groups, the current anti-racism movement may be unwittingly reinforcing this idea.

4.2 How diversity ‘fits’ within the organisation

Some organisations have dedicated ‘EDI’ teams or roles, but for many participants, diversity is one of many areas within their role or remit.

Larger and more well-resourced organisations tend to have a dedicated role or team working on diversity for the whole organisation and these staff tend to work across all teams and with volunteers. Where dedicated roles were in place, some had been recruited recently (within the last year or so), possibly reflecting a growing interest in this area.

Some organisations put diversity roles within HR teams, and these would support both staff and volunteers.

But for many respondents, diversity and inclusion is one of many areas within a role or remit that is often considered already overloaded and unrealistic. Typically, volunteer managers lack capacity, many are part time, and their role includes all aspects of volunteer recruitment and management. Some volunteer management staff are supported by wider organisational structures, but others feel more that it ‘sits with them’ and is largely driven (or not driven) by individual priorities and capacity.

Organisations have a variety of practical measures in place focusing on diversity – but culture matters just as much as policies and data.

Many organisations talked about having diversity and equality policies and processes in place and offering related training. But there was also a recognition for the need to have an organisational culture that actively supports diversity and inclusion across the organisation. Examples from respondents included having shared organisational values that promote diversity and inclusion, internal networks for different groups within the organisation and platforms for people to share personal experiences.

Within some organisations, diversity was part of the wider organisational strategy – this tended to be in organisations where the work on diversity was driven by the organisation rather than individuals.

Since the recent anti-racism movements, organisations were more likely to talk about the importance of embedding diversity within their organisation.

Some respondents were keen to look at organisational or volunteering culture and how that relates to institutional and systemic racism. This has been driven at least in part, by the global anti-racism movement. These respondents showed a desire to look at their origins, dismantle power structures and redistribute power to service users.

Many organisations talked of wanting to have a ‘whole-organisation’ approach to diversity in volunteering (see our diagram on embedding diversity), and the challenges around fully embedding this. Organisations spoke frequently about wanting to change organisational culture to promote diversity and inclusion.

While there is a drive to embed diversity in some organisations (and the wider sector), competing priorities in light of covid-19 have meant that some respondents do not have the resources needed to fully embed inclusion in the ways that they feel would be most effective (eg not able to commission specialists or consultants) and instead must rely on internal networks or HR staff. This challenge was mentioned in some interviews that took place during the pandemic.

Embedding diversity and inclusion within organisations can also be challenging in organisations with leaders who have been at the helm for many years. Organisations noted that these leaders are sometimes too embedded in the ‘old culture’ to want to make any lasting change.

Spotlight: The impact of global anti-racism movements and volunteering in the UK

Since the death of George Floyd in police custody in America in May 2020, activists have sparked a global anti-racism movement that has inspired many in the UK voluntary sector to do more to combat structural racism within their organisations. The impact of this movement was noted by organisations we interviewed in the second half of the year. Some organisations felt that the issues in relation to volunteering and diversity might have a greater chance of being addressed in the current climate. Wider society was seen as being more willing to look at structural racism and to create more inclusive environments, including for volunteering. Some organisations felt ready to look inward and to evaluate their practices and how they may be contributing to or supporting structural racism and inequality.

Respondents reported that, while some organisations were engaging in these changes in a tokenistic way, others were taking serious actions to make change happen, so that their volunteers would be more reflective of their service users or community. These organisations were often working to dismantle existing power structures and dynamics within their organisation that contributed to structural inequalities and reinforced ‘otherness’ and disempowerment. They were also seeking to address unjust power imbalances that were rooted in colonialism and paternalism and lead to oppression and discrimination. For organisations already fully engaged and working to tackle racism, such as UK Black Pride, the impact of the anti-racism movement was perhaps less of a turning point but more an inspiration to do even more or to focus on intersectionality and engaging service users with the least power (such as trans people of colour).

Protests by Black Lives Matter campaigners and the wider global anti-racism movement were seen as bigger drivers for diversity and inclusion than covid-19. However, covid-19 and the lockdowns had allowed some organisations to have more time to reflect on these issues and their organisational culture around volunteering.

‘Black Lives Matter was a big driver in thinking about our diversity approach (as we imagine most organisations are doing right now also). Our CEO put out a passionate letter to staff in response to the Black Lives Matter protests in London, and this was sent to volunteers as well… As a result of the [anti-racism] movement, we have started doing things to celebrate Black History Month, and volunteers have been engaged with this also.’ (Volunteers Services Manager, environmental organisation)

‘I think that Black Lives Matter has caused the sector to reflect on diversity differently, however, much of the work feels performative and fails to address the inherent power dynamics that exist within the third sector, but that being said it is leading some to be more critical in their thinking around diversity which can only be a good thing.’ (Expert interview)

Case example:

SPEAR (a London-based charity assisting people experiencing homelessness) has actively embraced the Black Lives Matter movement. The organisation has established a diversity committee which includes black and minority ethnic members of staff and has set up a committee for gender and age diversification. Staff developed a Yammer feed during Black History Month which supports and encourages conversations around diversity. These initiatives are staff-based, not volunteer based. After attending the NCVO diversity workshop, the organisation was inspired to continue building on the ‘face’ of SPEAR by including more diverse and minority photos on its website, all its social media platforms and in leaflets and pamphlets. After lockdown ends, the organisation hopes to give talks with diverse community groups within its operating area to actively encourage volunteering from different demographics.