Actionaid's cultural journey towards diversity and inclusion

20 March 2019
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ActionAid’s Chief Executive Girish Menon explains the work the charity is doing on becoming an organisation that has diversity and inclusion at the heart of its culture and is embedded in feminist principles.

“We live in a diverse world and a diverse society, and our organisations need to reflect that diversity to make us more representative and pluralistic.”

That is one of the most compelling yet simple arguments I have heard in response to the question ‘Why diversity?'

In the not-for-profit sector, there is another even more compelling imperative. We are united in our purpose to create a society that is more equal, more fair, more just and more safe. We do it differently, of course, and have different pathways, but that is essentially the core of it.

In delivering our mission, we seek to understand the challenges of those who are vulnerable, living in different parts of the country or the world, so that our work responds to their struggles and their challenges. If our teams have people who have the lived experience of those challenges or can relate to them better than others – given their social or economic status – then diversity helps by bringing some of that understanding and empathy.

As we embed diversity in our organisations in order to reflect the diversity in society, it is equally important that we work towards an environment which is truly inclusive – an environment that respects people from diverse backgrounds, that enables people to share their diverse perspectives, that is free from any form of discriminatory or exclusionary behaviour, that creates and promotes safe spaces and enables people to perform effectively and to the best of their abilities.

The 'culture conversation'

All of this is part of a ‘culture conversation’ that it is very important for every organisation to have. While our success will be measured by what we do, it will be amplified if we also consider how we do it. Any culture conversation needs to consider what kind of an organisation we aspire to be, and needs to have diversity and inclusion at the heart of it. There is now plenty of evidence about how diversity and inclusion drive higher degrees of engagement and therefore lead to more effective performance. Diversity is also now considered to be a driver for innovation and lateral thinking.

At ActionAid, we embarked on a culture journey about three years ago. It started with a reflection on the culture we currently have and conversations about the culture we seek to create. It was discussed at the same time as us developing a new strategy, which revolved around the rights of women and girls living in poverty.

We understood issues of gender inequality were being driven by patriarchal values, norms and culture, and we recognised the power of feminist values to redress this ‘power imbalance’ as part of our strategy and programmes. But it was not good enough for feminist analysis to be ‘out there’ in our programmes. It was also important for us to talk about feminist principles ‘in here’. Thus started the journey of embedding feminist values as the basis of our organisational culture, and therefore a very comfortable nesting of diversity and inclusion within that. This essentially emphasises respect, self-awareness, self-care and zero tolerance to discrimination as some of its core principles.

A process that started off within our staff teams was soon widened to include our Board of Trustees, recognising the key role of governance in influencing organisational culture. We were very fortunate that the Board fully embraced this concept and devoted time and effort to participate, engage, influence and shape the feminist agenda, within our strategy, culture and behaviours.

This has not been an easy journey because it makes us ask some hard questions about ourselves and raises some difficult and uncomfortable conversations. There are no right answers or right solutions either. It is all about the principles and the values we hold dear.

Even if there is a theoretical or ideological acceptance on issues of culture, feminist principles and diversity and inclusion, it eventually boils down to behaviours of each individual, for it is ultimately through our behaviours that our commitments are brought to life.

'Pressure on leadership'

This puts incredible pressure on the leadership to hold themselves accountable, to demonstrate the right behaviours, to acknowledge and accept where we get it wrong, to call out behaviours that are not aligned to our principles. Hence, it is all the more important to embrace it and commit ourselves to getting better.

We are getting clearer on some of these aspects. We are on the verge of finalising our diversity and inclusion framework that looks at what we are currently doing and what we need to do.

We are consulting with various staff groups looking at various aspects of diversity, including gender, LGBTQ+ and mental health. We are looking at our measures and how we report on these. We are digging deeper on specific areas of inclusivity, be it around flexible working or safe spaces. We are connecting it to feminist principles and coming up with a framework called ‘My Feminist Behaviours’. We are embedding it in everything that we want to do around our people, be it recruitment, retention or advancement, across staff and trustees.

Reflecting on our work over the past three years, it does give me a deep sense of satisfaction that the journey has truly begun. It even makes me feel proud.

Equally, I am very conscious that a lot more needs to be done in fulfilling our aspiration of an organisation that has diversity and inclusion at the heart of our culture and that is embedded in feminist principles.

What I do know is that we have the support and engagement of staff across the organisation and our board – and of course, we are still seeking answers!

In November we launched our Manifesto for Change which sets out how we plan to embark on the journey to achieve an equal, diverse and inclusive profession where everyone is the right fit. We are encouraging fundraisers to sign up to the #ChangeCollective movement so we can work together to make fundraising a career for everyone. 

Girish Menon
Girish Menon
Chief Executive of ActionAid
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