Modern charity is a diverse space but our leadership remains unequal

ACEVO’s Director of Policy, Asheem Singh writes about equality in the charity sector. The below article first appeared in the Guardian Voluntary Sector hub on 13 March 2014.

Throughout history, charity and equality have formed radical combinations. Lady of the lamp Florence Nightingale remains one of charity and the Victorian Crimea’s greatest icons, an otherworldly amalgam of dedication, mission and academic rigour. Mohamed Yunus, microfinance’s staunchest advocate, after one failed attempt directed his tiny loans at disempowered women in landless farming communities. The success of this approach led Christopher Hitchens to remark ‘we know how to beat poverty in the developing world. You give a woman her reproductive freedom, you give her some money of her own you empower her.’

Hitch’s analysis may not itself be academically rigorous but it’s pretty good. As the social enterprise movement has boomed this last decade we’ve seen women from all backgrounds step forward. Annys Darkwa set up Vision, a prisoner rehabilitation and housing social enterprise from the back of her car when just out of prison herself. Recent research by RBS suggests that while young men are twice as likely as young women to set up new businesses, women are 30 per cent more likely to set up social enterprises. And according to SEUK, 91 per cent of social enterprises have women on their top team.

I wish we could say the same about the modern charity sector. Modern charity is a diverse, energetic space. There are small charities working at street level and large charities delivering incredible services like cutting edge cancer research and braille books for the blind to millions of people. But our leadership remains, well, unequal.

My organisation ACEVO, the voice of civil society leaders, runs the sector’s most authoritative annual survey on pay transparency. The 2013/14 survey revealed that, while the number of women in senior leadership roles were on the rise, the gender pay gap was on the rise also, with median charity CEO pay 18.6 per cent – nearly a fifth – less for women than for men. Across senior leadership roles, women earned 10 per cent less than their male counterparts. And shockingly, just 3 per cent of CEOs surveyed were from BME backgrounds. I was at the launch of this survey in November. As the numbers were read out, there was a palpable sense of shock in the room.

Charity leaders and workers care about these issues but progress remains slower than we activists should sanction. There are some great initiatives from the charity sector in this space. At ACEVO we are running a women’s charity leaders conference later this year which aims to support and empower. We run a special interest group of charity leaders from BME backgrounds. Often it is the charity sector which steps in at the community level, offering placements and internships to those whom the system shuts out; RNIB’s excellent internship scheme for blind people is one such example. Certainly, our equality ratios – at least on gender – compare well with other sectors. But we’re the charity sector and we have a moral and historic duty, not only to compare favourably, but to lead the way on equality, on solidarity, on social justice.

I’m proud to work in an organisation, whose chair is the fantastic Lesley-Anne Alexander, where 60 per cent of the top team are women and 20 per cent are from a BME background. But I do think that we all must do more, put radical empowerment and equality front and centre. So here is my challenge to trustees, to chief execs and to all of us who care about charity: let’s not talk, but act and campaign for change. There remains a huge job do be done around equality at charity’s top level. And we mustn’t ever confuse the excellence we deliver in our social missions with the need for charity leaders to demand excellence of their equality and employment practices too. That, when all’s said and done, is charity’s heritage. And that will ensure our charity’s radical future too.

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