‘We are a structurally racist organisation, and we’re sorry.’ What next?

By Tim Toulmin, managing director of crisis communications specialist Alder. 

“NCVO is a structurally racist organisation… the same is true for sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism and disablism.”

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) – the century-old, pre-eminent sector body in the world of charities – has had an eyebrow-raising few weeks since the surprise resignation of its CEO in January after 16 months in post.

The blunt and rather shocking quote above comes not from a disgruntled outsider or ex-employee, but its chair Dr Priya Singh, in a statement last week on the latest development in its equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) workstream, which started in January 2020.

If that message was designed to shock, then it has done its job – but it also serves to distract attention from the key questions of what exactly has been going on in the organisation, and what the trustees are going to do about it.

This week, interim CEO Sarah Vibert added that NCVO’s leadership was “shocked and ashamed… NCVO has enabled such a culture to persist, and we are absolutely determined that this should change, and fast”. The EDI process had “only just scratched the surface of the process of healing for staff who have been harmed by NCVO’s culture”, she added.

Both comments were made after a confidential, internal EDI report was leaked to charity magazine Third Sector, which duly ran a story headlined ‘Bullying and harassment took place ‘with impunity’ at all levels of the NCVO, report concludes’.

It is right for NCVO to face up to its problems and to recognise and validate the pain felt by minoritised groups in its organisation, before charting a more equitable way forward, and setting an example to others. There is no doubt this is an organisation acting with the best of intentions, and communicating about the EDI work – something NCVO has been openly doing throughout the process – was always going to be a big challenge.

But it’s hard to know what to make of it all. Certainly, the language used makes the culture sound nothing less than horrific. It implies that there have been widespread, long-term abuses which have been glossed over, covered up and hidden for years from the Charity Commission, the mainstream press, the sector’s two high quality trade outlets, Third Sector and Civil Society.

In that case, a proportionate response from NCVO to such damning findings would surely include things like staff suspensions or dismissals, the resignation of the board, the involvement of the police or inquiries by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

Why hasn’t NCVO highlighted that it is taking these actions?

This, then, is a bit of a head-scratcher. Either NCVO is falling into the trap of trying to let the words do the hard work in a bid to escape taking firm action, or the language used has failed to properly explain what has been going on.

The problem is, we just don’t know which it is. There is too little information about what happened for us to take a reasoned view.

For these ‘fresh start’ initiatives to work, clarity is surely king.

In this case, the examples are general, the condemnatory words extreme. And we are left wondering: what are they actually talking about?

In a post-BLM world, this is an emerging area for communications professionals, and the relevant strategies, best practice and professional ethics are still being refined. In being one of the first off the blocks, NCVO has done us all a favour in highlighting the challenge of communicating about this most important and delicate of subjects.

That, though, will provide little comfort to its presumably rather exhausted and exasperated comms team. Nor to the many staff who will have suffered mistreatment of this kind in other workplaces, but have not been given the opportunity to talk about it.

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