Blagrave Trustee Tasneem Alom reflects on the questions now facing Trusts and Foundations who seek to support issues of social justice.
The Black Lives Matter movement has shown us that there are fundamental issues in every sector within our society. Historic regimes of oppression to this day still prevent people of colour and specifically black people, from achieving true equality. People are rightly demanding change.
Today, the trusts and foundations sector whilst devoted to helping the most disadvantaged people in our country, has not made a big enough shift away from historically white and male dominated trustee boards. This injustice means that there is often an imbalance of power at the very top at board levels where the key decisions concerning money are being made.
Corporate institutions and government have all sought to diversify their talent pool. There has been a gradual shift in terms of commitment to diversity within most organisations. Yet, a recent study found that 99% of foundation trustees are white, in comparison with the 92% in the wider charity sector.
This begs the question as to why foundations and trusts are not following suit?
One reason behind this is that there is no external pressure for trusts and foundations to become more diverse. There are no clients, stakeholders or shareholders to point out the issue with having all white, mainly male, dominated trustee board. In addition, the organisations they support are unlikely to question why this is the case. However, this does not mean we cannot exert higher standards on ourselves. We can and must do better.
It is important to note that diversity is not just about the things you can see i.e. colour and gender. Many people of colour are challenging the limiting categories of ‘BAME’, ‘Asian’ or ‘Black’ as it does not capture the true complexity of identity and experience. For instance, the understanding that a woman of colour has a double disadvantage stacked against her. In addition, we often forget that there are disabilities that we cannot see but result in profound disadvantage or negative views about sexuality.
Diversity moving forward should mean thinking critically about identity markers along all aspects of race, class, disability, religion, gender and sexuality.
The most important question to tackle is why? Why do we need diverse boards, particularly when trusts and foundations are providing much needed financial capital to organisations that help disadvantaged people. Does it matter who hands out the money, as long as the money gets to the right places?
The answer is yes, it does. Because the process to get to the decision to hand out money needs to be diversified.
It is imperative that foundations and trusts are equitable, transparent, and representative of the people they seek to help. It is not enough to just support work that is seeking to change the world, without addressing inequalities and committing to greater diversity, equality and inclusion within our own boards. The logic behind this is that we better understand the structural inequalities that hold certain groups back, provide insight through lived experiences and be open to different and unique views within our decision-making process. It is a case of understanding the subject or people that benefit from our work better, so that the decisions we make have the maximum beneficial impact and provide long term solutions. It is about meaningful change.
When I was younger, I was told by a former manager that I need to stop looking at things through an identity lens, interpreting every comment through the paradigms of my gender, religion and race. I now realise how wrong that comment was. By taking a colour-blind approach we ignore the implications of race on the work we fund, which disadvantages people of colour. For example, coronavirus was originally perceived as the great equaliser in society. Everyone in society, from Tom Hanks to the prime minister, were victims of the virus. But something did not add up.
It was then revealed that black people are 1.9 times more likely to die from the virus than white people, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are 1.8 times more likely to die and Indians around 1.5 times more likely to die than their white counterparts. This shows us that race is itself a predictor of life outcomes. This also shows us that racial equity needs to be a part of philanthropic design.
Our organisation, the Blagrave Trust, has seen much change over the last two years. We went from an all-white trustee board of a certain age to five ethnic minorities on the board all bringing direct lived experience of the issues our mission is focused on. Our Board now ranges from aged 19 to 70+ We want this to be the new normal.
We have added a different type of value to our discussions. When someone has experienced disadvantage growing up, whether that is having a darker skin colour, having grown up in the care system or having an unseen disability, they are better able to understand how the mind of a disadvantaged person works; the mental health issues that surround that; the struggle of necessity, living pay cheque to pay cheque, the list goes on. Above all, the lived experiences that our trustee board now brings has helped me personally elevate my own understanding of disadvantage. We are able to see issues through a racial lens, whether that be from the perspective of a Black man or an Asian woman. This is something that is clearly missing in other organisations.
A missed opportunity
We miss a real opportunity when we do not commit ourselves to diversity within our boards. Primarily, we fail to represent the people we serve at the highest level, at the level where the monetary decisions are made. We fail to include the lived experiences of these individuals, and in turn we do not fully understand their real needs. If you want to change something, you need to hear about the actual experiences to tackle the problem, and the conjoining issues that surround it. A young person who lives within the care system is not just financially impoverished, there may be issues of mental health to consider, for example.
In addition to this, bringing a diverse set of voices to the table mean people will bounce ideas of each other, finding innovative ways to carry out the purpose of the organisation. Bringing in younger trustees can achieve this, as it is often argued that younger people bring more innovation and tech savvy ways of doing things. This in turn ensures that your organisation is having a meaningful impact, in the most efficient and innovative way possible.
Finally, we all benefit if power is distributed fairly. It means everyone is held accountable and has a slice of the pie. The charity sector, and wider society, has much to improve in this area, but it is particularly important that the trust and foundations sector, who seeks to support issues of social justice, rises to the occasion, and has a look at its own boards to see how power is distributed.
Tasneem Alom, Blagrave trustee