Michael Abiodun Olatokun: From words to action on EDI

Much has been said and written about improving diversity in the charity sector. Now is the time for genuine change. Here are four areas Chairs should reflect on

This article was written for the Association of Chairs, an organisation I have been a member of for the last five years. View the original post on the AoC website here.

The death of George Floyd sounded a clarion call for leaders to reshape an oppressive world. After that tragic event, organisations from every walk of life, and seemingly every part of our country, sought to reckon with racial justice. But as a young Black man often exposed to discriminatory treatment, and more importantly an established leader in this field, I have been left decidedly unimpressed by charity sector efforts to combat racism.

Despite the creation of a new Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) principle in the Charity Governance Code, I find myself scratching my head as to whether, in an impact-focused, long-term manner, our sector truly gives effect to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ mantra. There were umpteen press releases and black squares on social media. There were steers to be more vocal during Black History month. So what? The unapologetic tokenism of these displays of ‘solidarity’ made me feel quite disempowered.

My frustration at its core was the disjuncture between my burning desire to change the world immediately on the one hand and what I perceive as the inability of charity leaders to discuss racial injustice beyond shallow questions such as “how can we get a board that is more descriptively representative of Britain?”

I crave a more in-depth narrative begging questions that show the sector has matured in its consideration of inequality. Such an investigation might ask questions such as “how does the culture of our organisation contribute to the societal dismantling of racism?”

Thankfully, this frustration has been partially alleviated by recent activities in the sector. Working with the Action for Trustee Racial Diversity campaign, AoC conducted a series of focus groups with Black and Asian trustee board Chairs this summer (see picture, right). We heard from a wide range of new and established board leaders, and I was comforted to be involved in frank conversations about where the sector was succeeding and how we could do even better. I have four takeaway points below that I hope Chairs and fellow members of AoC will reflect upon.

Black And Asian Focus Group

1) We need to do more to get the message out about trusteeship, the charity sector and the public benefit we deliver. 

  • The low numbers of Black and Asian trustees was described by some participants as a communication problem. We were told that trusteeship is seldom ever discussed in a family context or in other informal spaces where young people secure ‘careers’ advice. It was thought that increasing the visibility of role models and trailblazers from underrepresented groups would combat this somewhat, and I made an effort to do this myself during Trustees’ Week 2021.

2) Black and Asian trustees want a genuine cultural approach to equality and diversity – one that is threaded through the organisation 

  • Our respondents stated that commitments to equality sometimes do not go beyond “rhetoric” and that boards should “feel truly inclusive and not just a diversity numbers game”. Several respondents wanted their expertise to be recognised rather than being appointed solely on the basis of their ethnicity. This related to another point:
  • Retention matters, and is arguably as important as recruitment. Much of the focus of efforts to improve the representation of minority groups on boards is around recruitment, but Chairs should be equally concerned at Black and Asian trustees leaving boards at a faster rate than they join.
  • Genuinely threading anti-racism through an organisation’s culture was the preferred approach; recruitment exercises that solely set out to improve diversity statistics were viewed with scepticism.
  • Some of those we spoke to were the only non-caucasian members of their boards. They felt more comfortable in their roles where their appointment had not been a “token” decision but was part of an exercise to “recruit for lived experience”.
  • One respondent spoke to a “burden of representation” in which she is expected to be the board lead on matters of EDI, even where the subject matter might be best left to an external stakeholder. Chairs should be careful to view EDI as a responsibility for all trustees, not solely the duty of those from underrepresented groups.

3) Diversity should be intersectional 

  • What EDI practitioners truly seek is a mix of “cognitive, characteristic and experiential” diversity, which requires careful and strategic planning. This is not achieved solely by recruiting directors that present as visibly different from the average trustee; it requires changing the culture of the organisation, avoiding groupthink and facilitating challenge around the table.
  • One participant told us that although she had previously been a member of boards that mirrored her ethnic background, her time on those boards was marred by constant disrespect from other (male) members of the board. Racial discrimination was a non-issue in that situation; misogyny was the problem. It is no comfort to individuals confronted with such problems that it was due to their gender rather than their ethnicity.
  • I have never joined a board solely as a young Black man; I bring my disabilities, my trauma and a range of other (protected and non-protected) characteristics that shape my identity too. It would be remiss of any organisation recruiting me to not understand the multiple areas of my identity that can mean my needs sometimes conflict with one another. Understanding the complexity of an intersectional approach to EDI is vital to making it work.

4) Learn from the great work already going on 

  • The value of resources provided by groups such as ATRD was acknowledged as important in keeping Black and Asian trustees in the sector despite challenges. Our participants emphasised the importance of colleagues across the sector highlighting the existence of resources such as the ATRD Mighty Network.
  • Aside from programmes run by organisations such as ATRD, individual Black and Asian Chairs convene informal networks of support. The various initiatives included mentoring trustee applicants, sharing best practice and providing safe spaces in which to discuss racism within the charity sector.

Key takeaways

We are all united by one mission. We make our charitable objects a reality by acting for the public benefit. That mission is undermined if we draw our leaders from too narrow a section of society, do not hear from a substantial proportion of our potential beneficiaries when we create strategy, and act in a manner that entrenches systemic racism.

The Black and Asian Chairs I spoke to kept me hopeful; they spoke of progress and improvement over time. Some of the more senior participants had spent lengthy careers fighting exhausting battles to ensure that our sector acts in a way that will lead to a fairer society.

As one of only two twenty-somethings on that call, I felt as though I was a relay runner being handed a baton. I have no notion of how long the rest of the race might be, but I will keep going, spurred on by my desire of acting in a sector that gives effect to social justice for both its beneficiaries and its leaders. I look forward to continuing that race with you.

Next steps

Michael Abiodun Olatokun is a trustee of Law for Life, and formerly the British Youth Council, Diana Award and the University of Westminster Students’ Union (where he chaired the board). He is an ambassador of the Young Trustees Movement and a member of AoC. Michael is the EDI Officer of the British Institute of International Law and leads the EDI committee at the Institute of Paralegals. He has been working with AoC and ATRD this year to better understand how to improve racial diversity on trustee boards. 

Follow us

@ATRD Twitter account
@ab1odun Twitter account
Abiodunolatokun.com website

Find out more?

Home Truths: Undoing racism and delivering real diversity in the charity sector
Who Sits On Trustee Boards?
Students’ Union Trustee Board Research 2019 (Nick Smith Consulting)
Taken on Trust The awareness and effectiveness of charity trustees in England and Wales
How to recruit trustees for your charity A practical guide

Published by abiodunolatokun

I am a campaigner, academic and lawyer. I run a number of projects which I hope will make the world a better place. Find out more and engage with them at abiodunolatokun.com.

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