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Get started with equity, diversity and inclusion

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This page helps you get started in improving your organisations’ approach to equity, diversity and inclusion. It explains some key terms, why voluntary organisations should act and where to get further guidance.

NCVO wants to enable everyone to make a difference through volunteering and voluntary sector organisations. It affects everyone's lives with many people under-valued and treated differently because of who they are. This could be due to race, class, religion or belief, sex, gender, age, sexual orientation and disability or a combination of these.

Like many voluntary organisations, we continue to learn and challenge ourselves to embed equity, diversity and inclusion in our everyday practice and behaviours. Find out more on this by reading a blog about NCVO’s own journey on equity, diversity and inclusion.

Defining equity, diversity and inclusion

There is no one complete set of agreed definitions for terms like equity, diversity and inclusion. Your organisation may want to develop definitions relevant to your context and activities. 

These are some commonly used definitions:

  • Equality means ensuring every individual has equal opportunities. By being conscious of and actively challenging bias or prejudice we make sure no-one is treated less favourably because of who they are or what makes them different from other people. This requires a proactive approach to make reasonable adjustments that address the visible and invisible barriers people face. 
  • Equity means treating people in ways that make sure they are not unfairly prevented from accessing resources and opportunities nor that others have an unfair advantage. Simply providing the same opportunities to everyone is not an effective way to create equality of outcomes. Equality of outcomes highlights rather than giving everyone the same thing, it is about giving people what they need for fair access. This is about removing inequalities to make sure everyone has the chance to realise their ambitions. For this reason, equity is NCVO’s preferred definition and we use this approach in our work.
  • Diversity means having differences within an organisation or setting. Diversity recognises we are all different in many ways. People with differing identities, backgrounds and experiences should all have equitable access to resources and decision-making. Some people prefer to use the term ‘representation’ to focus on how organisations should be reflective of the society we live in and the communities we serve. 
  • Inclusion means being proactive to make sure people of different backgrounds, experiences and identities feel welcomed, respected and fully able to participate. It is not only about creating a diverse environment but also about ensuring a culture exists where individuals can be their full selves.


We all have overlapping identities including – but not limited to – disability, gender, race, religion or belief, sex, class and sexual orientation.

Taking an ‘intersectional’ approach to equity, diversity and inclusion requires us to understand that these multiple forms of discrimination are experienced simultaneously, in different ways by people of different backgrounds. 

Learn more

Here are some starting points for learning more about equity, diversity and inclusion terms and concepts:

Why this matters for voluntary organisations

Everyone deserves to be treated equally, fairly and with dignity. However, inequalities in society make this harder for some people. The systems and structures we have created privilege some and do not work for others. 

The voluntary sector reflects these inequalities and the wider barriers and exclusion in society. Our trustees, staff and volunteers do not always reflect the communities our organisations serve.

Staff, volunteers and others involved in our work experience discrimination, prejudice and harassment because of who they are and the groups and communities they are associated with. As a result of this people are prevented from accessing opportunities, resources and decision-making spaces equitably.

To achieve change, voluntary organisations need to recognise and understand how people are excluded and disadvantaged and change their existing ways of working and behaviours.

By removing barriers that exclude people, our organisations are more effective at changing our communities for the better. We all benefit from a more just, equitable and inclusive society.

What do we know about inequality in the voluntary sector?

Injustice exists across society at large, which includes the voluntary sector. In spite of the sector seeking to have a positive impact on society, it does not always live up to these ethical principles. 

The sector can be reluctant to acknowledge that there is inequality in it. It is also important to recognise inequality will not always be visible to people who do not experience it first hand.

It is necessary for everyone, especially those without direct experience of injustice, to listen, understand, and educate themselves on inequality in order to help overturn it.  

The following resources provide information about the lack of diversity and the inequalities at different levels of the voluntary sector.

Taking action on equity, diversity and inclusion

Everyone has a role to make sure organisations are inclusive spaces for all which reflect the diversity of our society. It is important everyone reflects on their own experiences, assumptions and behaviours and is proactively inclusive in creating space for those often excluded.

This includes acknowledging what power and privilege we have and how we can be active in addressing inequalities in our organisations.

Organisations and their leadership have a responsibility to take action on equity and improving inclusion. They need to be held to account on this. Senior leaders need to identify existing ways of working which exclude individuals and prevent them from participating fully. 

This is vital because those in leadership positions hold power in organisations.They can:

  • model inclusive behaviours
  • actively challenge discrimination and injustice
  • make sure there are adequate resources to support effective action
  • make sure there are safe and effective processes for addressing discrimination
  • commit to building an equitable organisational culture.

Boards have a specific responsibility for the way the whole organisation works. They should set the direction and strategic commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion.

Organisational actions and decision-making should be informed by and carried out in partnership with those facing discrimination and prejudice. It reduces the risk of organisations making inappropriate assumptions or taking ineffective steps.

Equally, measures should be put in place to make sure people who experience discrimination are not required to take on a disproportionate amount of practical and emotional labour. 

At NCVO we have taken steps to consider the role voluntary organisations must play in addressing institutional racism. Find out more on this by looking at the Charity So White website for their work in this area and reading our blogs on equity, diversity and inclusion

Find more information on taking action on equity, diversity and inclusion.

What are organisations in the voluntary sector doing about it?

Last reviewed: 20 August 2021

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 20 August 2021

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