5. Organisational experiences with diversity and volunteering

This section looks at how diversity has been prioritised in organisations and the actions organisations have taken towards diversity and inclusion within their organisations and volunteer opportunities.

The findings in this section are informed by data from workshops, interviews and emails.

5.1 Where organisations are in their journey

The organisations we spoke to seemed to be working within one of two (or both) volunteer frameworks in relation to diversity and inclusion:

  1. Volunteers should reflect the organisation’s service users – this might include organisations that serve a community of interest, for example people who are deaf or hard of hearing, or service users from lower socio-economic groups or who are battling a specific disease. This framework would also value volunteers with lived experience related to the organisations’ mission.
  2. Volunteers should reflect the locality where the organisation is based – this framework would be based around reflecting the local, regional or national population and would require an organisation to understand the demographics of the community where it is based.

Organisations told us that addressing diversity issues within volunteering is a ‘work in progress’.

Most organisations reported that they were doing ‘something’ in relation to diversity and inclusion. Examples of activities which organisations have been undertaking include:

  • developing strategies, processes and policies
  • carrying out research or internal audits
  • gathering information or data about volunteers
  • reaching out to specific target groups in the community
  • creating networks or having ambassadors
  • creating training materials
  • making sure communications and images reflect diversity and are inclusive
  • creating a welcoming and inclusive culture for volunteers or the wider organisation.

We created Equal Opportunities forms for our families, young people and volunteers. In these forms, we gather information about ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, religion, etc. By collecting this information, we generate data that informs our ability to be an inclusive organisation that targets people who need our services and attract a diverse network of volunteers.

(Programme manager, befriending service)

Where diversity is addressed at a senior level it is more likely to be embedded and prioritised.

Participants cited various factors related to how diversity was prioritised within organisations. Some of the drivers cited included structural changes to their organisation, which in some cases could result in greater focus (eg new dedicated roles) or less focus (eg other priorities becoming more important) and key individuals advocating for it within their organisation.

Among those respondents in organisations where diversity was a higher priority, it was typically being addressed at a strategic level with a recognition that it is an area that requires resources, time and capacity as well as buy-in from wider and more senior levels of the organisation.

Respondents who had typically got further along their journey towards diversity and inclusion tended to be in organisations with more resources and capacity, such as a dedicated staff or team.

Organisations commonly want to address ‘imbalances’ in their volunteer profile.

There are huge differences between organisations related to who volunteers with them. There are also many organisations who do not fully understand the demographics of their volunteer base.

Organisations talked about wanting to address imbalances. For example if their current volunteers were predominantly older, white, and middle class, they might be looking to expand their base with younger volunteers from a range of ethnic and socio-economic groups. This is often very context specific: for example if an organisation had mainly male volunteers, they might look to include more women, and this could vary by role as well.

We want to be representative of the borough that we operate in as well as the service users we support.

(Workshop participant, London)

There is a recognition that the issues associated with diversity and volunteering are varied and complex.

There was a recognition by respondents that there are many ways of interpreting and approaching diversity and volunteering. It is a complex topic, not only in terms of language, but also the different aspects that are focused on such as age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, etc. There was also an acknowledgement of the importance of intersectionality when looking at identity.

Many respondents felt that they were making progress in some areas but not in others. Some of their activities on inclusive volunteering had been paused due to covid-19. In general, most respondents felt they were on a journey towards inclusion and greater diversity, although they recognised there was more to be done. However, some respondents acknowledged that very little has been done within their organisations or that they were in the early stages of making changes and still have a very long way to go.

We know we need to do a lot more. At a local level, volunteers tend to recruit from whomever they can who meet the criteria. There are not universal pro-active measures in place. However, we are starting a pilot project to address this.

(COO, social service organisation)

5.2 Diversity as a priority and how this changed in 2020

Organisations varied in how much they prioritised diversity– but there was a general sense that it is now higher on the agenda.

Participants were asked (pre-covid-19) to reflect on how much their organisation currently prioritised diversity – on a scale of 1-10 where 1 was very low priority and 10 very high. Their responses varied widely from one organisation to the other; but from 67 responses the average (mean) score was 8. Wider discussions at the workshops reflected this also.

The overall sense from respondents was that organisations are thinking about diversity more and trying to be more active in this area (even if they may not have done much to date). Events in 2020 may have increased the pace of change but there are likely additional factors such as public pressure, funding requirements and demands from service users.

There are inconsistencies within organisations with diversity meaning different things and being more or less challenging in different parts of an organisation. For example, an organisation’s charity shops might have very different approaches and sub-cultures to those of the head office.

Organisations also noted differences in the level of priority given to the diversity of staff and the diversity of volunteers (with greater priority given to staff). This can sometimes reflect whether volunteering is considered a priority for the organisation or not.

Interest in diversity may have increased, but organisations feel they have fewer resources to make any significant changes.

Some organisations noted that diversity in volunteering had not been seen as a priority before covid-19, but this changed when the pandemic started to impact on volunteer numbers. This was the case, for example, for organisations with a high proportion of older volunteers who had to shield and were no longer able to volunteer. So, for some organisations focusing more on diversity and reaching out to people who had never volunteered before was a way to increase their volunteer base. However, for those organisations that had not prioritised diversity before covid-19, the pandemic crisis may have pushed this even lower down their list of priorities because of additional competing demands (eg day-to-day operations, finances etc).

Many of our respondents felt that there was now a greater acknowledgement that systemic racism exists and that, consequently inclusion had become more of a priority and organisations were under increasing pressure to respond to this. Some considered that covid-19 and the lockdowns had given organisations the space to pause and reflect on their working culture (particularly around remote working) and to talk about inclusive working practices. This context has given organisations the opportunity to look at their staff and volunteer compositions and consider whether they are reflective of their service users.

However, organisations recognised that they have also been dealing with a very challenging funding environment this year. With reduced resources, some respondents highlighted that it was harder for some organisations to make diversity and inclusion a financial priority.

There is sometimes a gap between intention and action.

Diversity had become more of a priority for some respondents as a result of global anti-racism movements. But covid-19 has created an environment of competing priorities, leading some organisations to slow down their efforts towards greater diversity and inclusion, while others have stepped up their work in this area and been more active.

While many respondents felt that there was willingness and enthusiasm within their organisations to do more, this did not always translate into action or progress. This was particularly the case when talking to respondents after March 2020, who were keen to make changes but talked about numerous financial or practical barriers that prevented this from happening (see section 6). For others, it was a matter of confidence or lack of knowledge about how to make progress. Organisations acknowledged the need to undertake actions that were meaningful and the importance of ‘doing it properly’ and making sure that efforts are not tokenistic or a ‘tick box’ exercise.

5.3 Future aims and aspirations

Research workshops asked participants what inclusive volunteering would ideally look like in their organisation. Additionally, those who responded via written feedback reflected on their ambitions and future plans.

These aims and aspirations broadly fit into three distinct categories: reflecting communities or service users, volunteers’ feelings in and towards the organisation, and organisational processes and culture.

A key aspiration among organisations was for volunteers to better reflect the wider community, especially service users.

Many organisations felt there was a mismatch between the demographics of their volunteers and the demographics of the community within which the organisation was based or of wider society. This concern was especially prevalent for participants in organisations based in London. Many participants spoke about their volunteers being majority white, middle-class, older women, although this depended to some degree on the type of organisation and the role.

Organisations also highlighted the differences between volunteers and service users and their desire to bridge this gap, including through encouraging more service users to become volunteers. It was felt to be especially important to minimise power imbalances and for both volunteers and service users to receive support from peers.

Organisations want to see not only a diverse range of people volunteering, but a genuine inclusive culture where volunteers (and potential volunteers) feel welcomed and as though they belong.

Respondents described their ‘ideal scenario’ in terms of how volunteers would feel in or towards their organisation. Words used to describe this included: engaged, that they belong, included, welcomed, comfortable and that the organisation is relevant to them. This was particularly important during covid-19, where many organisations worried about keeping remote volunteers engaged.

Overall, respondents recognised the need to offer a high-quality experience to all volunteers, which we know from Time Well Spent is key in both attracting potential new volunteers and retaining current ones.

Organisations discussed what would help enable increased diversity and inclusion in their organisations.

The main themes discussed with respondents were:

  • Creating a positive culture related to diversity that was embedded in the organisation – and commonly understood by all.
  • Developing processes and roles which recognise and address barriers – eg having a wide range of flexible roles, less onerous recruitment processes, training – and resources to support volunteers.
  • Engagement with local communities through partnership working.

We want diversity to be celebrated rather than a problem to be overcome.

(Workshop participant, Bristol)

Some organisations talked about having tangible actions planned ahead.

When reflecting on future plans to address diversity issues, some organisations talked about their general ambitions and vision (as outlined above) and others reported specific actions they had planned ahead that would support them in making progress.

Examples included:

  • making sure that diversity and inclusion was specifically written into the current strategy
  • organisational change such as new leadership or appointing specific teams or individuals to lead on activities
  • capturing data on demographics, monitoring and analysis; specific projects or programmes related to diversity.

Our staff and volunteer teams are great at welcoming and supporting new members, through peer-learning, training and an open-door policy. This 'team-generated-warmth' is spread across everything we do. We have sound policies in place to provide accessibility, support with mental health and reasonable adjustments for all staff and volunteers. All volunteer roles are designed to be mutually beneficial for the organisation and the volunteer.

(Volunteer Manager, cultural organisation)

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 17 December 2020