4. How diversity is viewed by organisations

This section looks at organisational understandings and perceptions of diversity and volunteering and how this sits within their context and structure.

Most of the findings for this section come from workshop data collected January to March 2020.

4.1 How diversity is talked about and what it means to organisations

Organisations use a variety of different terms to talk about this topic, with diversity and inclusion most commonly used.

Qualitative data gathered in this research from staff and leaders of organisations tells us about what diversity, particularly in relation to volunteering, means to them. Workshop participants described numerous terms that they use, including diversity, inclusion, equality, belonging, respect, equity, liberation, inclusivity, EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion), openness, differentiation, community engagement, hard to reach groups, people seldom heard, disadvantaged and overcoming barriers.

Diversity and inclusion are the most commonly used terms, but in many organisations multiple terms are used.

Some organisations distinguish terms more clearly than others – and use them in different ways.

There is wide variation between organisations’ use and understanding of terms in relation to diversity. Sometimes this varies within organisations and between people as well. For example, different teams and staff members may have different levels of understanding of diversity. If an organisation is not clear about its use of these terms or what diversity means to them, there will likely be misunderstandings and misconceptions internally.

Organisations who have a diversity or inclusion strategy have likely had internal discussions, analysis of data and planning sessions that have mapped out issues such as who they are referring to when talking about diversity and what the term means for volunteering.

Some respondents felt that their volunteer programme or opportunities were ‘open to everyone’ and were not clear about what diversity might look like within their volunteering base or had not been able to explore this further.

We take a very broad and inclusive view of diversity including people on low incomes, people living in rural areas who can become isolated, etc. and we try to make volunteering possible for all these groups. We understand that carers are not homogenous; their experiences and demographic vary. Therefore, in all that we do we try to be as diverse as possible in our approach so that we can support and be there for all carers.

(Senior Membership and Volunteering Officer, carers charity)

One of the key distinctions some organisations made was between diversity and inclusion (inclusion being used in a wider sense of creating a welcoming and open environment for everyone who volunteers). Two separate respondents spoke about the importance of inclusion, which they said results in diversity.

Diversity for us means difference. We want our units and members to recognise and embrace the common differences that exist among people, such as their age, ethnicity, sexuality, gender or religion. As an organisation, we recognise the important difference between diversity and inclusion, and place a big emphasis on inclusion. When we talk about inclusion, we’re talking about all members feeling an equal sense of belonging and receiving tailored support to reach their maximum potential.

(Inclusion Project Manager, youth organisation)

For some organisations, diversity meant that volunteers are a reflection of who the service users or stakeholders of the organisation are.

Diversity to our volunteering service means having a volunteering population that reflects our patient population. This entails having a responsive and flexible service that empowers volunteers from a wide variety of backgrounds and abilities to volunteer.

(Volunteering Services Manager, NHS foundation trust)

Talking about diversity is a ‘starting point’ – but there are differing levels of confidence when it comes to knowing how to talk about issues relating to diversity.

Most of the organisations and staff we spoke to felt that it was important to their organisation to talk about diversity. However, there was variation in the confidence levels of staff as to how to support these discussions internally and with volunteers.

Some organisations at very early stages of addressing diversity issues lack confidence around terminology and have fears about ‘getting it wrong’ stemming from concerns about causing offence. Using the ‘right’ language came up repeatedly as a barrier to progress and some volunteer managers clearly feel they need more support, knowledge and training around this issue.

Organisations view diversity in relation to their values, actions and outcomes.

When participants talked about what diversity (and related terms) meant to their organisation, three main perspectives stood out.

Some viewed diversity in terms of their organisational values – and how these values are reflected in the organisation’s. For example, recognising, accepting and embracing people’s differences (across a range of different factors) and being welcoming, inclusive and friendly as an organisation. This also includes organisations that see EDI as part of their wider commitment to social justice and equality.

Diversity is one of five key values which were chosen by staff, volunteers and members in 2018 and is something that we as an organisation are consistently working towards. We look to represent the local community with diversity and equality amongst age, ethnicity, gender and ward. We are an all-inclusive organisation and we like to encourage our visually impaired members to also volunteer.

(Volunteer co-ordinator, health organisation)

Others focused on the actions and approach that their organisation undertook in addressing issues in this area, for example through gathering monitoring data, delivering specific programmes or initiatives, having a team leading on this area, or having a diversity strategy.

We have an Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion team, the naming of which gives an insight into our stance. Our approach is human rights focused, for example citing the social model of disability. We have an Equality Strategy, and network groups for staff and volunteers who identify as BAME, disabled, LGB, or Trans and non-binary.

(Volunteer co-ordinator, advice charity)

Others looked at it in terms of outcomes or what ‘getting it right’ enabled them to achieve as an organisation – for example, providing services in an accessible manner and being more relevant to the wider community, or meeting statutory duties.

We are a stronger, bolder and more confident organisation when we embrace diversity. Having people with a diverse range of experiences and views will mean that we are able to deliver on content that is meaningful to a diverse range of people and creates a more welcoming environment to a wider range of people.

(Learning co-ordinator, museum)

Organisations recognise that diversity includes a wide range of factors.

When reflecting on what diversity (and related terms) means, most organisations acknowledged that it covers many different aspects such as age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability and religion, but also more widely diversity of thought and background, experience, and education. However, to some organisations, diversity has a narrower focus. For some, it is used as a shorthand term for ethnic minorities, while others see it as encompassing only age and gender or creating accessible spaces for disabled people. While diversity is not a synonym for ethnic minority groups, the current anti-racism movement may be unwittingly reinforcing this idea.

Diversity is all about having a varied mix of people from different backgrounds who can all contribute their skills, cultural awareness, knowledge and experiences. It brings a variety of perspectives and allows us to deliver better results.

(People and Project Manager, employment and skills organisation)

4.2 How diversity ‘fits’ within the organisation

Some organisations have dedicated ‘EDI’ teams or roles, but for many participants, diversity is one of many areas within their role or remit.

Larger and more well-resourced organisations tend to have a dedicated role or team working on diversity for the whole organisation and these staff tend to work across all teams and with volunteers. Where dedicated roles were in place, some had been recruited recently (within the last year or so), possibly reflecting a growing interest in this area.

Some organisations put diversity roles within HR teams, and these would support both staff and volunteers.

But for many respondents, diversity and inclusion is one of many areas within a role or remit that is often considered already overloaded and unrealistic. Typically, volunteer managers lack capacity, many are part time, and their role includes all aspects of volunteer recruitment and management. Some volunteer management staff are supported by wider organisational structures, but others feel more that it ‘sits with them’ and is largely driven (or not driven) by individual priorities and capacity.

Organisations have a variety of practical measures in place focusing on diversity – but culture matters just as much as policies and data.

All colleagues and volunteers can bring their whole selves to work; intersectionality, diversity and difference is celebrated, and everyone is treated with dignity and respect.

(Head of Volunteering, disability charity)

Many organisations talked about having diversity and equality policies and processes in place and offering related training. But there was also a recognition for the need to have an organisational culture that actively supports diversity and inclusion across the organisation. Examples from respondents included having shared organisational values that promote diversity and inclusion, internal networks for different groups within the organisation and platforms for people to share personal experiences.

Within some organisations, diversity was part of the wider organisational strategy – this tended to be in organisations where the work on diversity was driven by the organisation rather than individuals.

Since the recent anti-racism movements, organisations were more likely to talk about the importance of embedding diversity within their organisation.

Some respondents were keen to look at organisational or volunteering culture and how that relates to institutional and systemic racism. This has been driven at least in part, by the global anti-racism movement. These respondents showed a desire to look at their origins, dismantle power structures and redistribute power to service users.

Many organisations talked of wanting to have a ‘whole-organisation’ approach to diversity in volunteering (see our diagram on embedding diversity), and the challenges around fully embedding this. Organisations spoke frequently about wanting to change organisational culture to promote diversity and inclusion.

While there is a drive to embed diversity in some organisations (and the wider sector), competing priorities in light of covid-19 have meant that some respondents do not have the resources needed to fully embed inclusion in the ways that they feel would be most effective (eg not able to commission specialists or consultants) and instead must rely on internal networks or HR staff. This challenge was mentioned in some interviews that took place during the pandemic.

Embedding diversity and inclusion within organisations can also be challenging in organisations with leaders who have been at the helm for many years. Organisations noted that these leaders are sometimes too embedded in the ‘old culture’ to want to make any lasting change.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 17 December 2020