Why focusing on existing volunteers is key to accelerating progress with diversity

Helen Timbrell is an independent consultant working with the voluntary sector on people and organisational development.   She previously held director level roles in national charities, having spent over 15 years working and volunteering in the sector.  Helen will chair the 2019 NCVO annual conference workshop on Building our equality, diversity and inclusion capabilities: Why we urgently need to change our organisational approach and how to get there

I’ve read the NPC report exploring the lack of progress charities have repeatedly made with equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI).  It’s packed full of useful insights and helpful challenges.  If you haven’t already read it, you should.

But there’s one sentence that really bothers me: “Nobody in the charity sector is against diversity”.


None of the 20k volunteers in the last organisation I worked in?

Or the 70k volunteers in the one before that?

Or the 100k volunteers in the one where I was most recently a Trustee?

I wish it were true but I don’t think it is.  I think this statement’s inclusion in the report highlights the unhelpful lack of attention being paid to the role of existing volunteers in progressing EDI within volunteering.

When attention is paid to EDI in volunteering it usually focusses on how to attract a more diverse range of volunteers.  Much less attention is paid to existing volunteer teams and the extent to which they can help, or hinder, organisational ambitions for greater diversity.   My experience is they can be a major driver or barrier to progress and I don’t see this being appropriately acknowledged or tackled.  I wanted to test that theory, so I did some research.

I surveyed and spoke with heads of volunteering in twelve large national charities. While 90% of respondents were confident existing staff would welcome more diverse colleagues only 20% were confident that existing volunteers would.  In addition, none of the organisations described themselves as “very confident” that existing volunteers saw EDI as a priority and just 10% were “partially confident” of this.   Is this an accurate picture or are heads of volunteering underestimating their volunteers?   Either way it highlights a potential disconnect between staff and volunteers.

Despite these concerns, only 30% of the organisations had a strategy for EDI specifically in relation to volunteering, and only 50% actually had a strategy for EDI in the organisation at all!   Perhaps unsurprisingly all of the charities said their organisation hadn’t made as much progress as it would like with EDI.  While almost all of the charities had a nominated lead for EDI, in only one case was this a dedicated role, rather than a responsibility added onto a broader job.

Crucially, half of the charities I spoke to also described themselves as “not particularly confident” that trustees and executive directors see EDI as a priority, even in organisations where it had been formally identified as such.  There was a disconnect between words and action.

Absence of leadership, strategy and resources are all playing a part in slowing down progress on EDI and that’s not news.  But this research also highlights the extent to which volunteering is not front and centre for EDI and it should be.

Volunteers are often the largest part of the workforce, the public face of the organisation: scale alone means they should be a priority.  Add to that the fact they appear to be the area of least confidence/most concern for organisations and it becomes critical to be actively engaged in considering how to work with current volunteers on EDI.

In my research the very people who know how to manage change with volunteers were also rarely at the centre of work on EDI: heads of volunteering described simply not knowing what was happening with EDI in their organisations.

To accelerate progress with EDI in organisations we know there is a need for a more strategic approach, greater leadership and more resources.  I would also argue there is an urgent need to prioritise work with current volunteers and to recognise this is a strategic change agenda, not just a recruitment programme.  Only with strong partnerships between heads of volunteering and wider strategic leaders in organisations will this be successful.

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