Diversity and inclusion in Third Sector leadership: why is it not happening?

The extent to which leadership opportunities in the Third Sector are open to all members of the community who feel that they may have a contribution to make has finally become a serious topic of conversation in recent months.

Debates have been hampered by a lack of reliable evidence. Our new report from #ThirdSectorTrends makes a contribution to the debate by presenting evidence on the personal and biographical characteristics of Third Sector leaders across the North of England.

Third Sector Trends is a big study funded by Community Foundation serving Tyne & Wear and Northumberland, Power to Change and Garfield Weston Foundation. It has now been running for twelve years in the North of England. In 2019, nearly 3,200 organisations responded to the survey. So we have probably produced the most reliable data so far on the topic.

What did we find out?

Amongst chairs of boards of trustees or directors, which govern Third Sector Organisations (TSOs), we found that older people, men and graduates are over-represented compared with population averages. By contrast people with disabilities and members of BAME groups (and to a lesser extent, women) are less well represented.

Amongst chief officers there are proportionately more graduates and women in positions of leadership than in the general population. People with disabilities and members of BAME groups (and to a lesser extent men) are shown to be less well represented.

These headline findings are underscored by considerable complexity and variation across regions in the North of England, by size of organisations, the beneficiaries organisations serve, and levels of affluence of areas where organisations are based (you’ll find the link to the report at the end of this blog).

There is a great deal that we still don’t know

Our report provides only a partial picture of the current situation in the North of England. It shows that something is going wrong when it comes to the appointment of people with some biographical or personal characteristics to leadership positions. Specifically, there are proportionately too few Black, Asian and other minority ethnic (BAME) people in leadership roles.  

Interpreting headline statistics is not simple. It is unlikely that organisational cultures, policies and practices provide the sole explanation for unequal representation in leadership roles. It is more likely that there is a range of push and pull factors that attract or dissuade people from putting themselves forward for senior posts in TSOs (see diagram). We need to know more about these underlying social processes.

The well -known process of mentoring, nudging or arm-twisting people into leadership roles (especially chairs) is probably done within very limited ‘civic core’ social circles instead of broadening the search to a much wider constituency of potential. It is also likely that many charities, perhaps inadvertently, communicate the wrong messages to potential candidates and repel as many potential candidates as they attract.

There are many pools into which TSOs can dip when looking for leadership talent depending upon where they work, their social purpose, and what they expect from a leader in terms of personal characteristics, qualifications, experiences and motivation. But we also need to know more about how people do or don’t acquire an ‘aspiration to lead’ in the Third Sector (see the left hand arrows on the diagram).

Factors affecting leadership aspirations and opportunities

People being pushed forward.  At an individual level, aspirations to lead may derive from a wide variety of motivations. People may be driven towards leadership by local needs that are so pressing that they feel they have a moral or political responsibility to step up and offer their help.

Some people may be influenced by strongly held cultural values or beliefs that persuade them that they have a duty to play a leadership role.  Others may be driven by instrumental motivations, such as a practical need to earn money or a personal desire to obtain social status, power and influence from a leadership role. For many, if not most, it may be a mix of all these factors which shape their aspirations.

People being pulled back. Some people may privately harbour aspirations to take a leadership role, but for one reason or another, choose not to take the matter forward.  Others, who have the skills and experience to do so, might not even contemplate the possibility. Many things can spark or dampen aspirations – ranging from personal factors such as self-belief, confidence and willingness to take risks – to relational and situational factors.

Relational factors include the attitudes and beliefs of family and friends – which may encourage or dissuade individuals from putting themselves forward. Situational factors might include the availability of opportunities in the local area to take on a leadership role.

The arrows on the right hand of the diagram shows those factors that may attract or repel potential candidates from gaining specific opportunities to lead.

People being pushed back. Once an individual has established an aspiration to lead, they may face challenges in attaining position of trustee, director or chair of a TSO or to become a chief officer. Some organisations may present a forbidding or exclusionary image of themselves which, purposefully or otherwise, repels potential candidates with certain personal or biographical characteristics from putting themselves forward.

Presenting an unwelcoming image can amount to discriminatory practice and in some circumstances is illegal – providing that intent is proven to be purposeful. But often, people are repelled by subtle almost imperceptible cultural cues which the organisation may not know that it is communicating, nor even recognise that it owns.

Pulling people in.  TSOs often feel that they have to work very hard to entice candidates to take on specialised trustee roles, to become the chair of their board or chief officer. Whether they search in a general talent pool or a more specialised pools of individuals with specific characteristics is not known. But stories of arm-twisting or enticement of people with particular skills, talents or other attributes circulate widely.

The question is – do TSOs which are hoping to appoint a trustee, chair or chief officer always cast their nets as widely as they should? Or do they restrict their options, for one reason or another, which may be legitimate (such as the need to appoint someone with the requisite and demonstrable skills, knowledge and experience) or illegitimate (reflecting passive or active discrimination).

The point of this model is to show that interpretation of statistics on diversity and inclusion is both complex and contentious. The complexity arises from the enormous array of push and pull factors that come into play when considering the pool of people who do or could aspire to take on leadership positions.  The contention derives from those factors that ‘hold people back’ or ‘push people back’ from realising such aspirations – while giving favour to others.

Defining what needs to be done is simple – get more people from diverse backgrounds into the talent pool and stop discriminating against them once they arrive there. Achieving these objectives is a whole lot more difficult – for all kinds of reasons – but continually brushing the issue under the carpet just won’t do. Everyone has to play our part and get on with doing something about it.

Diversity and Inclusion in Organisational Leadership: evidence from Third Sector Trends 2020, is published by Community Foundation serving Tyne & Wear and Northumberland and is free to download at this web address: https://www.stchads.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/THIRD-SECTOR-TRENDS-BRIEFING-DIVERSITY-AND-INCLUSION-IN-ORGANISATIONAL-LEADERSHIP-OCTOBER-2020.pdf

Or on the main research project website from Wednesday 14th October: https://www.communityfoundation.org.uk/knowledge-and-leadership/third-sector-trends-research/


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