Postcard from the Comfort Zone

I wrote the following article in July 2016 for the Association of Charitable Foundation (ACF) magazine – Trust and Foundation News.  It was a companion piece to an article written by a young woman from a visible minority ethnic community and faith – each of us giving our very different perspectives on how a shared experience can be felt very differently.

Nearly two years (and 2 conferences) on there has been no response to our call and – sadly – little seems to have changed. 

Postcard from the comfort zone:

I read the article opposite and reflected on my own experience of attending ACF conferences over the years representing various trusts – in particular, thinking about what it felt like to sit in the main hall at the beginning and end of the day.  My experience is different to Samia’s.  I’ve always fitted in. I’m male, white, middle class, middle aged and I own more than one suit.  I feel I’m among my peers, with whom I share the common experience of being responsible for a trust with a focus on making the world a better place.  And I believe that most of us, if asked, would say we have gained our position in that room through a mixture of opportunity, hard work and experience.  It’s comfortably familiar.

But on another level I am acutely uncomfortable – because it is obvious there is something missing.  Look at the picture opposite [a view of the full conference hall taken at the ACF conference in 2015].  Diverse?  On any number of measures – no.  Maybe in terms of gender.  Possibly in terms of age. But what is the balance of male to female chief executives or chairs?  Or young people as trustees?  And certainly not diverse in relation to visible disability or faith, or minority ethnic communities. 

I recognise the fact that I write from a position of privilege.  I realise that it’s easy to dismiss diversity as being about tickbox piety.  I’m familiar with the arguments that prevent making diversity real – I make some of them myself in the rush to get things done – things like:

  • I don’t really understand diversity and inclusion or how to go about it;
  • It’s hard and I’m frightened of getting it wrong and giving offence;
  • My trustees aren’t interested;
  • We’re a family trust, so it doesn’t apply to us;
  • We’ve tried but no-one suitable applied;
  • We don’t want too much diversity – it might de-stabilise our board.

But actually they’re all just excuses for preserving our place in the comfort zone.  Diversity is about difference – recognising it, valuing it, incorporating it and changing in response to it. But things only change if the people with the power and the privilege – people who look like me and, probably, you – make the change. A genuinely diverse and inclusive board is both just and useful because:

  • We can better understand the needs of the communities we are trying to reach if we reflect those communities at all levels;
  • Different perspectives are more likely to generate new ideas and innovation;
  • Diversity is part of a commitment to equality and social justice.

We are used to looking critically at others – grant applicants and grant recipients – I’m not sure we are as comfortable looking critically at ourselves.  We often demand performance indicators and specific outcomes from applicants, and I wonder what that would look like if we set some outcomes for ourselves in relation to diversity, equality and inclusion within our own organisations.  I support Samia’s call for a conversation about making the management and governance of our trusts – and therefore our sector – more diverse and inclusive.  And I hope that many of us with the power will join in.  We’ll probably make mistakes, be a bit embarrassed, worry that we don’t know enough to contribute.  All that’s fine, we’ll get through it.

But we are not what we say – we’re what we do.  And I hope that this conversation leads to action we can collectively be proud of.  Our annual conference is perhaps the only opportunity for our movement to hold a mirror up to itself.  I wonder what the 2017 conference photo will show us we look like?  If you would be interested in contributing to this discussion, please contact ACF.



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