Insights from our work funding and supporting charities to improve DEI


Bonnie Chiu and Lily Lewis


In our last post, we outlined the steps we took to support five charities and social enterprises to apply a diversity and inclusion lens to their organisations.

To recap, we covered:

  • Carrying out a Diversity and Inclusion Audit (based on our template, which we are sharing publicly here)
  • Providing advice and concrete suggestions on improving diversity and inclusion based on the data, and supporting organisations in implementing them. 

In this post, we are going to dig deeper into our personal reflections and learnings of this experience, both from a funding and consultant perspective. 

To begin with, not having open applications was a mistake for us. As we focused only on the addiction and criminal justice sector, which is very small and connected, it appeared to be less work all round to just directly approach majority white-led charities and invite them to take part through an invite and informal calls with. Lily (the funder) had preliminary discussions with some of the organisations, who mostly all seemed extremely keen. They then struggled to respond to Bonnie (the consultant) – or worse, Bonnie would have to chase them multiple times for a response at many points during the project. This is probably due to the funder dynamics, and funders/consultants initiating this kind of support may want to think of questions or indicators to determine when / how a charity can best benefit from DEI support. 

But we also reflected that these behaviours may be linked to apathy and other types of fragility. Some organisations seemed more focussed on how they would appear and more fearful of ‘getting it wrong’ than actually taking concrete steps. We can’t help but wonder if an open application process would have attracted more organisations who were ready to engage with this work in a deeper way. And perhaps even funders can’t persuade people to be ready (shocker!). The initiative has to come from the charities themselves, and they have to be the ones to invite you in. We learnt this the hard way.

Thinking about support for the charities as a whole, we wondered if it was right for Bonnie to be doing the consulting work alone. As the resistance from some participants increased, Lily started to wonder what more she could have done within her power to make the environment potentially less stressful for Bonnie, as a woman of colour. Would there have been less resistance if Lily, as the white funder, were present in the meetings to support? Many people of colour understandably only accept board/facilitating positions on the condition that they are not the only people of colour representatives. How would the dynamic of the work have changed if there were two consultants to hold the weight of the work (and potential microaggressions) collectively?

What we think funders should do to support grantees on DEI

We think all funders have a role in supporting charities in advancing DEI, but this is probably the most relevant for funders that already support charities on their wider organisational development needs. Different funders have different relationships with their grantees – some are more hands-on, some are less; some focus on the whole organisation, some focus on specific projects. Funders would have limited leverage over charities’ wider goals if they only fund very specific projects; and it’s more likely that in-depth, trust-based relationships with their grantees would be lacking – which are critical for grantees to be genuinely guided in this direction. Thinking about DEI as part of organisational development needs is crucial. A lot of funders provide support for their grantees to improve on their finances, impact strategies, governance, etc but rarely think about DEI as part of organisational development. 

We also think that funders should start immediately. We know that some funders often don’t want to engage grantees on DEI until they themselves got their own house in order. In a way – this is valid: it would appear hypocritical for funders to demand charities achieve gold standards on DEI if they themselves are so far away from that.  But in another way – this is further delaying the urgent issue that needs addressing: it will take many years for organisations to get their DEI right and we all need to start somewhere. People often share the parallel between safeguarding and DEI – safeguarding is taken as an urgent priority and all charities and funders ensure that there is mandatory safeguarding training (let’s debate the effectiveness of this another time); but we don’t take the same attitude in DEI, even though inclusion should be at the heart of the whole charity sector. Funders and charities should finally ask themselves the question: what are we losing by not making DEI our first priority? 

How far should funders go? 

We have used the terminology DEI throughout because this is more widely used, and perhaps more palatable. But ultimately we believe funders should look at this with a justice lens and engage in anti-oppression – which forces us to look at the structural challenges we as a sector and as a society face. These words are still seen as taboo and give many uncomfortable physical reactions. Can we get honestly curious as to why?

And with that lens of anti-oppression, the deeply philosophical chicken and egg question is, do you meet people in their preliminary stages of where they are at or do you only work with those who are ready? Of course, there are many pillars of different approaches that are vital to meet the end goal of the work, but there comes a point where we must all choose the one best suited to us. We chose to meet people where they were at, but upon reflection, we wonder if we would have had more impact if we only worked with those who were ready. Only time will tell.

Read: ‘Our honest reflections from funding and supporting charities to improve on diversity, equity and inclusion’.

Bonnie Chiu is Managing Director at The Social Investment Company, and Lily Lewis is the Founder and CEO at The Pocressi Initiative. 

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