Do we make everyone welcome? Diversity in The Charity Sector

First published 26 Feb 2018, by Charity Job as "Do we make everyone welcome? Diversity in The Charity Sector" by Jean Merrylees

Do people looking to work, or move jobs, within the charity sector think we’re diverse and inclusive employers?

Do we make them feel welcome and encouraged to build a career with us – whatever their colour, age, disability, gender, sexuality, social or regional background?

These are of course important questions for all organisations.

But if anything they’re surely more important for us in the charity sector where we compete (on restricted budgets) with the private and public sectors to attract and retain the brightest talent.

And where we also need to represent the full breadth of the society we’re here here to support.

Ticking the diversity box

Being a diverse organisation is not just about having an equal opportunities policy. It’s not just about “ticking the diversity box”.

True diversity means benefitting from a range of people of different ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, social background and more.

It means taking positive steps to encourage people with disabilities to apply for jobs they can do. And then supporting them when they’re in work.

It’s about being open to those who come to you with a different history – of work, and of life.

And it’s about actively wanting to build an organisation that welcomes a breadth of thought, new ideas and encourages debate. [If you want evidence of how important this is, look no further than the recent PR storm around Google and its leaked employee “manifesto”.]

Global organisations in the private sector like Johnson & Johnson Mastercard  and Disney, know how important it is to prioritise diversity – if they’re to continue to grow and remain relevant to their widest audience.

It’s the same for our sector. A policy of diversity and inclusion is the key that unlocks the best talent. It also ensures that your charity can reach out to every sector of the community it’s there to support.

The voice of the candidates

In July 2017, we conducted two surveys; the first to our registered candidates, the second to our recruiters.

The response to both was overwhelming, but to the candidate survey in particular.

Unique amongst diversity studies and reports, our candidate survey is the voice of those looking to work in our sector, or move jobs within it.

It’s them telling us what they think of us. And we should listen – if we’re to get and keep the brightest and the best.

Who are they?

The breakdown of who responded to the candidate survey is here – where you can also explore the demographics in greater depth.

You’ll see that 1,335 registered Charity Job candidates completed the survey. Most of them are women (71%), they’re generally a little older (22% are 40-49, 34% are 50-59), they’re largely graduates (63% have BA, MA or PhD) and half of them are currently employed full time. The majority identify as white British (59%), followed next by black (19%) and Asian (11%). 79% regard themselves as not having a disability.

So, this demographic of jobseekers and movers, broadly reflects the make-up of the charity sector in general, and is more diverse than the working population of the UK overall.

But that also means we’re reproducing the same – and it tells us nothing about the career progression of the different groups represented. That’s something we find out more about by looking in more detail at the survey results.

And at least as important as the statistical results from the survey, are the experiences and the viewscontained in the candidates’ comments. They tell us a lot about where we’re falling down – and so where we’re missing out.

Who’s responsible for diversity?

The recruiter survey tells us how inclusivity policies are prioritised and who is responsible for them in the smaller charities.  Most (60%) of the charities who completed the recruiter survey have less than 30 people working for them. So, it’s worth bearing in mind that this survey is more indicative of the situation in the smaller organisations (which dominate our sector) than it is of the situation in the very large charities.

The key revelations

Too old. Particularly if you’re a woman.

This is the big one. 40% of candidates say they’ve been discriminated against because of their age. It’s the top complaint – above ethnicity/race (26%) and gender (27%).

Yet our recruiter survey results tell us they’re unaware of this perception of age discrimination.

The recruiter survey indicates a different set of priorities. When recruiters hear the word “diversity”, it’s ethnicity that comes to mind first (79%), followed by gender (30%). Age is right down at under 9%.

Nevertheless, time and again candidates are telling us they believe their career is suffering because of how age is treated. That’s both when in work – and when looking for work. And it’s women particularly who are feeling it.

“At 52 I feel some companies see that as a woman you are past the age of being fit.”

“Since leaving my full-time job aged 57, I have been interviewed by one young man who told me immediately on my walking in, the ‘team is young and energetic, they would not accept you, I am going to terminate the interview.’”

“I am a female and will be 60 next birthday, need I say more?”

Yes, the candidates who completed the survey are generally older (see chart) and female, but that doesn’t make their voice less valid. In fact, it just underlines how strongly ageism is felt by those making the effort to complete the survey.

It shows the dedication of these more mature candidates. They’re experienced and showing real commitment – we need to make sure they feel welcome.

We’ll look at how we do this in a future article which will also delve deeper into their comments and experiences.

Too experienced. Under-used transferable skills.

But it’s not just age per se – it’s age plus finding out that previous experience isn’t welcomed unless it directly relates to the specific job they’re applying for, or are currently employed to do.

It appears there’s a rigidity that doesn’t allow for previous experience or transferable skills. Similarly, at application stage, they feel too much experience will be held against them.

“I am 56. I have genuine amazing hands-on experience, knowledge and skills, excellent references, recommendations etc. Yet people fail to understand the full value and benefit that I can bring to the workplace.”

When we asked candidates what the sector could do to attract candidates with a diverse skill set, being more receptive to age and experience was a common theme:

“Be more open to different skill sets and adaptable to the challenges diversity might bring.”

“Advertise that they are willing to accept transferable skills and train employees if necessary.”

“Look to attract older people.”

“Truly diversify and offer over 50s jobs as well.”

“Having changed career I think focusing on being open-minded with transferable skills and complementary experience is key.”

Openness to transferable skills and looking outside of the sector, make total sense for charities if they’re to attract the best candidates.

40% of our registered candidates are looking to move into the sector. Our job ads, job descriptions and application processes must actively encourage talented people with transferable skills.

One of our forthcoming articles will focus on both age and the issues candidates are finding when transferring into our sector.

Ethnic diversity

If you say “diversity” to 79% of our recruiters, the first thing that comes to mind is ethnicity.

And when we then ask them what they’re doing to improve diversity in their organisation, it’s clear from their comments they’re thinking mostly in terms of ethnic diversity.

“Last year, we ran a 12-month project to examine how we could address the under-representation of BAME staff. The findings and recommendations from this report have fed into our diversity and inclusion strategies.”

A sizeable number of our candidates say they’ve experienced ethnic discrimination in the charity sector. 26%.  It’s less than for age and gender, but it’s nevertheless a quarter of the candidate survey. There were many, many elaborations on this:

“My name sounds very British, but as a black woman, I have seen “the look” when I arrive for an interview and I don’t fit the profile they have determined I should be.”

Race discrimination may be subjective. However, it is real. In my personal experience, I believe that on several occasions I have been passed over for promotion to people with less experience, knowledge and competence, to white colleagues.”

“I’m a black man in a senior management position in a mainstream charity but you always feel that other white British leaders do not want to engage. They will often prefer to speak to your white subordinates with whom they feel they have more in common.”

ACEVO’s 2017 Pay and Equalities Survey called for action to address the desperate under-representation of people from a BAME background amongst charity leaders (3% in 2017).  Our candidates’ comments show that BAME representation at all levels is seen to be an issue by candidates looking to move in the sector.

We did hear some good news stories from charities where there are diversity and inclusivity measures in place. In particular one charity that’s appointed a dedicated Diversity Officer. We’ll look at this case study in more detail in an article focusing on ethnic diversity in the sector.

Not the right gender

Gender is a complex issue for charities.

Women are 65% of the charity workforce (NCVO: UK Civil Society Almanac 2017).

And both our recruiters and candidates recognise that women dominate in numbers.

On the other hand, it’s felt that this dominance is not reflected in senior management roles. That’s what candidates and recruiters are telling us – and it’s supported by the salary/gender breakdown for roles in the sector.

There has been good news this year with reported increases in the number of women in senior management roles in charities (see Third Sector 2017 Diversity Survey). Also, strikingly, the AVECO 2017 Pay and Equalities Survey found that, for the first time, female CEOs in the charity sector outnumbered men by 58% to 40%.

However, our candidates are still feeling the effects of a glass ceiling for women – and experiencing gender discrimination. There’s a way to go yet.

“In gender, roughly half and half; although only one quarter of our senior management team is female..”

“.. among our board we have 55% men and 45% women, among our staff we have 75% women and 25% men.”

“Senior positions are mostly filled by men.”

27% of all those surveyed (men and women) feel they’ve been discriminated against because of gender.

47% of them believe that gender will have an impact on their career in the sector.

Interestingly the overall female workforce in the charity sector is off-putting to some male applicants and employees.  Men are telling us they don’t always feel welcome in the sector.

“Too many organisations in the charity sector are female dominated/exclusive organisations and can’t permit someone who might have more experience especially if they are male.

“One of only a few male and the only non-managerial male.”

Only 1% of the candidates who responded to the survey wanted to identify themselves as transgender. One transgender person said they’d experienced discrimination as a result.

“Because I’m transgender and potential employers still don’t like us.”

So, with gender it seems the representation of women in the very top jobs is improving, but women are telling us they’re not benefiting from this at all levels. And at the same time men starting out in the sector don’t always feel welcome. It’s a meaty subject, and we’ll revisit it in more depth in a future article.


An encouraging finding from the candidate survey, is that sexuality doesn’t come across as a significant cause for discrimination in charities.

81% of candidates identified themselves as heterosexual, 6% as homosexual, 4% as bisexual (9% didn’t want to answer this question).  But sexuality featured only once as a cause for perceived discrimination.

“Being openly gay became a major issue when I rose to a senior position in a Christian ethos charity.”


There’s a loud and clear message from those who identified as having a disability (17%), that the sector is deficient.

And 33% of all candidates surveyed believe we don’t do enough. Comments point to a “lip service” approach to welcoming people with disabilities; good intentions are not backed up by an investment of time or money in what’s then required to enable someone with a specific disability to work for you.

“They do mention that they encourage applications from persons with disabilities, in small writing at the end of the job description, but I’m not sure what much more they do afterwards in this regard.”

“Most just provide lip service is how I feel. One is not very sure whether to declare a hidden disability or take it up after an offer.”

“There is still a long way to go bringing in disabled people and seeing the person/skills/achievements and not a label or a burden – because the employer may need to make adjustments.”

“Many recruiters do no mention anything about disability access or being happy to adjust for disabled candidates.”

It’s evident from comments in the recruiter survey, that they believe they are well-intentioned and that they welcome people with disabilities – but also that too much is assumed44% of recruiters say they don’t always make it clear that candidates with disabilities are welcome to apply.

A serious issue that emerged is how our sector treats people who experience, or have experienced, a mental health problem.

It’s something many candidates feel strongly about. And it’s an entirely unprompted response – we didn’t ask a question related to mental health.

“There is still discrimination against mental health applicants.”

“People are worried about putting certain disabilities down, such as mental health issues, as they feel it may go against them.”

“… the problem is making the workplace a suitable place for disabled people, and the stigma of mental health is dealt with so badly.”

The Heads Together charity and the work of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, has recently highlighted mental health  – and the need to make sure mental health is supported.

It’s a worry that candidates who have experienced a mental health problem are saying they’ve been poorly treated when working for a charity – also that they feel the need to hide or lie about an issue in the past.  The charity sector, as with all sectors, needs to recognise supporting mental health as part and parcel of being inclusive and building a diverse workforce.

Our diversity surveys tell us so much about how the charity sector is perceived, by those trying to move into it – or move within it. They also reveal the level of knowledge and the attitudes to diversity amongst recruiters.

They’ve provided candidates (and recruiters) with a voice. Candidates are telling us what it’s like trying to get a job with a charity, or move around the sector. Does everyone feel like they’re treated fairly by us – regardless of colour, age, background, gender, ethnicity, disability?

Clearly there’s work to be done. There’s a wealth of talent out there. We need to reach it with inclusive selection processes – and by providing career development opportunities that are fair and encouraging to all. So that we can lead the way with a thriving, diverse workforce that best represents the communities we’re here to support.

With this in mind, we’ll be releasing a series of articles exploring our surveys’ findings in more depth. And looking at how we employ the best inclusivity and diversity practices within charity recruitment.


ACEVO 2017 Pay and Equalities Survey

NCVO: UK Civil Society Almanac 2017

Third Sector Diversity Survey 2017

Green Park: Thinking Differently About Difference; The Value of Diversity in the Social Sector