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Equity, diversity and inclusion at NCVO: What we need to do next

Karl Wilding, chief executive at NCVO, reflects on his own personal learning journey on equity diversity and inclusion (EDI), as well as how NCVO is taking the first steps towards being a more inclusive organisation.

It’s clear from our work on equity, diversity and inclusion that NCVO needs to change. That includes our approach to leadership in general and my own in particular.

One starting point is being open and honest about where we’ve got things wrong. Another is that we’ve got to become comfortable with opening up, bringing others into the conversation before we’ve got the answers. And indeed, recognising that quite often we ourselves don’t. This applies especially to our work on equity, diversity and inclusion.

In that spirit of openness, and so we can be accountable to our members and the sector at large, we’re sharing our reflections as we conclude the first phase of this work.

We hope that those on a similar journey to becoming more inclusive leaders and organisations can learn alongside us.

Uncomfortable truths

I’m increasingly learning that unless our work to confront power and privilege feels uncomfortable, we aren’t doing it right. 

This hasn’t been an easy process for anyone in the organisation, but its been particularly hard on those who’ve experienced inequity and injustice. Those who’ve shouldered the heaviest burden in leading this work. I am sorry that my own defensiveness at times has added to the burden of your work.

Another reflection here is that I could have gone further to protect their time for this valuable work to speak truth to power at NCVO. One of NCVO’s immediate commitments mentioned in Anne’s blog is properly allocating staff time to do this work from now on. 

I’m hugely grateful to the many NCVO colleagues who’ve bravely shared their experiences as part of this work and particularly those who’ve taken leading roles in driving it.

Our EDI work has highlighted mistakes we and I have made. How we make decisions, the language we use, how we run meetings, and how we recognise the strengths and skills of different colleagues are just a few of the areas where we need to change and improve. 

Its also highlighted issues we were probably aware of but have not been active enough in addressing – such as the predominance of white, straight, able-bodied people in our leadership positions. That we are a structurally racist organisation is now clearer than ever.

In our sector, we make much of speaking truth to power, but we hadn’t been doing enough to make this possible for our colleagues. A key lesson for us is making sure everyone at NCVO feels safe in speaking up about things that concern them and confident that their concerns will be heard and acted upon. We haven’t done that well enough to date, something I’ve got wrong. This must and will change.

Leading from the back

In order to deliver the changes needed, it’s important as chief executive to know when to lead from the front, and when to step back. This is probably where I’ve found it hardest to get the balance right. It means unlearning many of the things that I’ve learned as part and parcel of leadership. I’m being forced to think about change differently, resisting the urge to set direction and expecting others to simply follow.

Instead, I’m learning the importance of making space for those most affected by inequity and injustice to be at the heart of designing a route out of it. I also need to ensure they are fully supported in doing so and that they’re visibly leading.

It’s also important to ensure that the burden does not fall exclusively on those who are most marginalised. Through this work, I’ve also learnt a lot from colleagues who have worked for many years as allies to groups who have experienced injustice. Culture change is a team effort – and we can only make NCVO a more inclusive place to work with all parts of the organisation pushing in the same direction.

In many respects, we need to turn the NCVO model on its head externally too. Rather than us supporting the sector, in relation to our EDI work we need to draw upon the experience of those who’ve been active in this area for some years. We must use NCVO’s convening power to amplify their voices, firstly within NCVO and then throughout the sector.

A different approach

In her blog, our Chair Anne Heal has set out the immediate actions we’re taking together as an organisation in response to the findings of this work.  Anne and I strongly believe that it’s critically important that we challenge and change our own culture before we can help others to do the same.

Often, the changes we need to make individually seem small: not talking over others in meetings, or role-modelling better work-life balance, for example. But it’s all these ‘little big things’ that’ll add up to a change in culture.

Other actions we’re planning to take may feel small or superficial, such as publishing our ethnicity and disability pay gaps. But addressing what these are telling us is crucially important and will drive deeper, longer-term change. There’s little point becoming a more diverse organisation if we’re not an inclusive one, where everyone feels welcome – so culture change must be our priority.  

Other changes are going to take longer if they’re to be meaningful – such as establishing new leadership behaviours and embedding these across the organisation. Such behaviour change doesn’t happen overnight. We’re committed to putting in the necessary work to get there.

For today our focus is on what we’ve learned from this process to date and, more importantly, for us as leaders to step aside so the voices of those who have been most affected in NCVO are heard. Please take the time to read our staff blog on our EDI work and the BAME network blog on our EDI work.

My hope is that by being open about our work and our progress on this so far we can be part of a very necessary wider conversation in our sector. A conversation where NCVO can benefit from the experiences of others who are further along on this journey. 

In that spirit I’d be really pleased to speak to anyone else about what’s worked and what hasn’t in their organisation, or to share our reflections so far in more detail. Please do get in touch.

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