Too Many Charities Are Run by White Men Like Me—The Societies We Serve Deserve Better | Opinion

The charity sector is one of the most inspirational, optimistic and ethical places to make a living—but that doesn't make us perfect, especially when it comes to diversity.

Charities in both the UK and the U.S. are, by and large, white, middle class or even somewhat elitist. This isn't necessarily a deliberate policy, it is often just a product of history and circumstance.

But if we want charities to achieve all that they can, they must reflect the societies they claim to serve. This means that senior management need to look not only like their donors, but also their beneficiaries.

One of the biggest issues for charities is the perception that many in the sector have a "white savior" complex: that wealthy caucasians want to serve less developed countries not out of benevolence or humanity, but out of some kind of neo-colonial instinct. Cases like that of Renee Bach, the Virginia native who posed as a doctor in Uganda and oversaw the death of 105 children, increase the belief amongst some that charities are driven by the egos of their leaders, not the needs of their beneficiaries.

In my experience, this is almost never the case. Carving out a career in charity is not easy: many of those at the top started as volunteers or low-paid junior staff, and the governance requirements of charities in the UK and 501(c) organizations in the States are rigorous, and rightly so. This means it takes a long time—and a lot of patience and resilience—to reach the top. Only the sincere and the genuinely self-motivated can complete the journey.

Charities are similar to other industries where entry-level work is sometimes low-paid, and the path to senior positions is long. Just like the media and politics, a career in charity favors those with privilege, and many of the privileged are, for obvious historical reasons, white. This "privilege gap" is even more significant in the United States than in other countries, due to the legacy of slavery and the socio-economic issues continuing from it. This has even led dedicated organizations like the Institute for Black Charities to focus exclusively on nurturing African American organizations.

This is something I am acutely aware of as a trustee of a Muslim-led charity. It was only through British and American Muslims establishing their own charitable institutions that the potential of Muslim giving to transform societies at home and abroad was unleashed. The community is now the most philanthropic faith in the UK, and Muslim charities are some of the most active in the US.

Diversity, then, is not a luxury but a necessity for the charity sector: the Urban Institute found that minorities in the U.S. give between double and four times as much to charity, as do white Americans. This is despite us still having many structural issues in a sector that is all too often dominated by white people.

According to the UK Charity Commission, 92 percent of British charity trustees are white and 62 percent of the top 500 charities by income have all-white boards. The Pay and Equalities Survey 2018, published by the charity leaders body Acevo earlier this year, found that just 3 percent of charity chief executives were from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background, compared with 14 percent of the population nationwide.

The statistics are even more stark for women: just 2.25 percent of senior leaders within the sector were women of color.

This lack of representation will only create an even bigger gulf between charities and broader society in future, with between 20 and 30 per cent of the UK population expected to be BAME by 2050.

There are no comprehensive statistics on charity trustee diversity available for the US, but the conversation Stateside is more focussed on a racially equitable distribution of funds, rather than diversity in governance. The Ford Foundation, for example, committed in 2015 to centre racial equity in its grant making.

This is difficult for some of my colleagues in the sector to hear. Charity attracts staff who are almost always ethical, open and inclusive by their very nature. There is certainly no conspiracy to keep minorities out of the top positions in the sector. But that doesn't mean that there isn't unconscious bias, at both an individual and an institutional level.

There is growing recognition that action is required. In July, the UK's Acevo and the Institute of Fundraising jointly published a diversity charter that calls on charity leaders to commit to eight principles to tackle racial diversity within their own organizations. And in the US, organizations like Race Forward have been working with a range of non-profits to methodically increase their diversity.

I, however, am optimistic. I see charities like the one I am honored to be a trustee of, recruiting from diverse backgrounds based simply on what they want to achieve as an organization. Out of three trustees, I am the only white person.

And diversity works: our fundraising has grown in leaps and bounds; our CEO was recently awarded an Order of the British Empire honor by the Queen and our Chairman received a Points of Light award from former Prime Minister Theresa May.

We have worked across 52 countries around the world. It is only natural that we have people other than white men at the helm.

Eric Timmins is a trustee of the UK-based humanitarian charity Penny Appeal.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​