Looking to the future: People and culture

Rosie Walworth is part of NCVO’s communications team and has been involved in the collation and editing of these responses.

NCVO is 100 years old this year, and we’ve spent some time reflecting on the history of charities and volunteering. But now we want to take some time to think about what the future might look like for charities, social enterprises and community groups. We’ve asked people from around the sector for their thoughts.

This is the first of four pieces looking at a topic in the sector. This week, it’s people and culture – an opportunity to explore what charities are like to work and volunteer in.

We’d love to hear your views on the themes. You can share them using the hashtag #LookingToTheFuture, and remember to tag @NCVO.

On people and culture, you’ll be hearing from:

  • Girish Menon, chief executive of ActionAid
  • Ruby Bayley-Pratt, fundraising policy and research manager and co-chair of the gender equality network at British Red Cross
  • Joyce Fraser, founder and chair of the Black Heroes Foundation
  • Kate Collins, chief executive of Teenage Cancer Trust
  • Lee Willows, founder and chief executive of the Young Gamers and Gamblers Education Trust (YGAM)

When you look to the future, what worries you most? But most importantly, what are you optimistic about?


I am optimistic when I see people like Greta Thumberg and Jacinda Arden, they help me believe good things can happen.

Community action and movement-building is alive and kicking across the world.

A civil society that is optimistic about the future is essential. The thing that unites our sector is working towards a change that will make a world that is fairer and safer for all, and we have to remember this.

I worry about the threat of far-right populist politics. I worry that there is a risk the gains we’ve made as a sector and a society in the last fifty years with human rights, social welfare and equality may be rolled back.


Climate crisis. The rise of fascism. The rolling back of women’s rights. It’s a pretty bleak time. And I’m not convinced that our sector is being radical or strategic enough to affect the systems change we actually need. Our current model and ways of working are going to become obsolete.

That said, I am optimistic about movements like Extinction Rebellion (for all its flaws) and School Strike for Climate as well as organisations like Bloody Good Period). Call me naive, but it feels like there is an inevitable dismantling of traditional power structures – at least in our sector – on the horizon and for me, this will only increase our chances of effecting real change in the world.


The continued removal of government funds to support society, with charities and volunteers expected to carry out the functions of government.

There is a reduced pot of funding that an increased volume of people in need are all scrambling for. The smallest charities aren’t attracting donations as easily and are losing out. I worry because it is these charities which work at the grassroots that are making a real difference to diverse communities.

I’m optimistic about the sector’s recognition that there needs to be a massive cultural change in the charity sector, as echoed by Julia Unwin in Civil Society Futures. But there is still a lack of focus on diversity, and in particular on race. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency if any positive progress is to be made.


I’m not a great worrier but as a parent and as the leader of an organisation that exists for young people – the pressure on young people to succeed, to pass tests, to fit in, to look great and be popular is huge. For young people with cancer they have to add shoulder facing cancer as well as these social pressures – it can be an enormous weight to carry.

But it’s young people that make me feel the most optimistic. Their energy and activism, their passion for change and desire to be heard is what we have to listen to, encourage and respond to. Doing so will create a better future for us all.


For an organisation like Young Gamers & Gamblers Education Trust with such a niche, the challenge is finding talent to join us who truly understand this niche.  We are tackling a social issue which is still emerging and an addiction which is not fully understood. We know that over 450,000 people are addicted to gambling (where you wager money to win money) in the UK, of whom 55,000 are young people.

What makes me optimistic is how our sector continually innovates. As an example, to address the ‘finding the talent’ challenge, we are about to embark on a new programme with Queen Mary, University of London and other charity partners to provide a four-year, full-time, fully funded Charted Manager Degree Apprenticeship specifically for people wanting to enter our sector. This programme will bring in new talent into the sector, in a purposeful way which is great for YGAM as we need young leaders who understand tech and gaming.

Are current approaches to diversity in the sector working?


There has been much talk of diversity in the sector in recent years, with little impact. The recent Institute of Fundraising (IoF) work on equality, diversity and inclusion says that 70% of charities have a policy in place around diversity. It is good that there are policies being put in place, together with practical advice, such as ACEVO’s racial diversity principles. It is important, however, that these strategies are implemented with the full support of leaders, and via cultural change programmes which change ‘the way we do things here’.


That’s a very big question. As a sector we shouldn’t be complacent and say we are naturally diverse.

The private and public sectors are doing a lot, publishing a lot of information. We should be doing the same.

We should be constantly open to challenge and constantly evolving. We will get it wrong and we need to continue to challenge ourselves when we do.


It’s positive that these conversations are happening and that high-profile institutions in particular are putting diversity and inclusion front and centre. That said, while I think most approaches in the sector are coming from a very genuine place of wanting to effect change, I feel there is a woeful lack of education and ambition across the sector as a whole.

We’re dealing with the continuing legacy of an old-fashioned notion of charity that’s not rooted in empowerment. Look at the white saviour critiques of some international development. This correlates with our whiteness as a sector and with assumptions about gender roles reflected in our disproportionately female workforce. This doesn’t necessarily mean that individual intentions aren’t good but I don’t think we can ignore these factors.

Leaders in our sector need to invest in educating themselves on these issues and not in a tokenistic way. They need to tackle their own discomfort and vulnerability in talking about their biases and the advantages they may have had in life which others haven’t.

What practical support is needed to help organisations change their approach to diversity?


We have to talk about diversity in its widest sense, and consider more than race and gender. We need to talk about trans inclusion, about mental health, about neurodiversity, about disability and about class.

Intersectionality is incredibly important in this conversation, especially when we are talking about what barriers are facing different groups and our internalised biases. Prince Harry’s recent statement on unconscious bias captures this perfectly.

I find there is a lot more done on the symptoms and not on the causes.

There is too much thinking about optics and what we are seen to be doing to improve diversity. We need to make a real space for this conversation.

It’s also important to remember that diversity is one end of the spectrum and inclusion will be incredibly important for making these changes stick.


Equality, diversity and inclusion change programmes need to be properly resourced with people with lived experience empowered to lead them, and metrics in place to embed the practice and outcomes. IoF’s Change Collective makes a bold step towards changing the fundraising profession.

I also believe a positive step will be for organisations to publish metrics on race employment and pay gaps.


My advice to charity leaders would be this: hire experts who are at the forefront of this work, genuinely engage with people who have lived experience, don’t be afraid to relinquish some of your power, be radical and stop worrying about offending people whose views are stuck in the past and instead choose your values and stick to them.

Does the voluntary sector value lived experience? How can we move past lip service to genuine transitions of power and decision-making?


I worry about the trend of those with lived experiences being expected to volunteer their knowledge, support, experience and passion to the privileged and charitable institutions who get paid for being a conduit. Small charities working at grass roots with lived experiences work under pressure, with a lack of resources and support.

Often the very people leading these charities are themselves facing the challenges that their beneficiaries face.


The sector is too big and complex for a yes or no answer here – sometimes I see it happen brilliantly (and I am proud of how our Youth Advisory Group at Teenage Cancer Trust has been challenging me personally in the development of our new strategy) but

sometimes things can appear to be lip service – even if it’s not the intention.

I actually think the first step is straightforward – it is to genuinely seek to understand unfiltered lived experience. The big next step – and the harder one – is really hearing it and then doing something with what you’ve heard, and being held accountable on it.


Many charities are tackling social issues and having colleagues with direct, personal experienced of that social issue brings a deeper level of understanding, empathy and real insight. What is particularly pleasing to witness is how colleagues with lived experience are now doing more than bringing insight and contributing; there is a new breed of social entrepreneurs, founding their own charities based on their lived experience. Such an approach has the potential to move beyond insight, instead it has the potential to influence policy and decision-making at the highest level.

This gives me huge optimism for the future as what were the case studies, sometimes an abstract, are now authentic, real people ‘in the moment’ leading change and actively contributing to policy. The creates a relevance and purpose that perhaps has been lacking in many charities.

The challenge for leaders with lived experience can be finding the right balance to ensure that the spotlight isn’t taken away from the social purpose of the charity.

The most satisfying thing a leader with lived experience can do is create legacy.

Experiences of working in the voluntary sector aren’t always positive and there has been a lot of discussion about creating safe and tolerant workplaces. What do you think this looks like in practice?


First up it looks, and sounds, like leaders (at whatever level) listening, observing and checking in. It should be possible to strive for big impact and high performance in organisations while also making sure that organisations are purposeful, inclusive, safe and supportive.

It has to mean a zero-tolerance approach to bullying and harassment, and everyone can lead on this. Set the tone, model good behaviour and when things go wrong – or we get things wrong, admit it and learn.


It’s really important that we are as open as we need to be on sexual harassment and bullying. People must feel safe to talk about it and feel like they have a contribution to make to the culture of the organisation to make it more tolerant and more safe.


We mustn’t put the onus on staff who are facing harassment or discrimination to be the drivers of change. It’s up to those who don’t face this to be making sure that our organisations are inclusive.

Does the culture of charities need to change to ensure it is fit for the future? If so, how?


What I always maintain is that the whole world outside is changing, and therefore our sector must change with it. We must be much more flexible, adaptive and engaging. We cannot assume that people will engage with us and trust us. We need much more humility and transparency now and for the future.


If I could wish for one thing it would be that we stop seeing ourselves as the good guys.

Of course we should believe in the work we do, but I think this really holds us back from making difficult decisions or taking stances which might not please everyone, being diligent about what’s going on in our own organisations, and owning and being transparent about our mistakes.


The challenge for every organisation, whether a charity or a commercial organisation, is relevance. Every organisation has to be relentlessly tuned in to what the people they exist for need and are telling them. We must stay relevant and adapt: Easy to say, hard to do.


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Avatar photo Rosie joined NCVO in 2018 as a trainee external relations officer after working as a programme manager for a literacy charity. Rosie supports both NCVO’s parliamentary work and media relations, including Constructive Voices, and is responsible for organising our annual Campaigning Conference.

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