Tony Armstrong, Chief Executive of Locality, shares his reflections on the work being done to build an organisation and membership that champions and embeds diversity, equity and inclusion.

Locality has been working with our partners to take a hard look at ourselves on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. We have a vision of a fair society where every community thrives. We are a long way off achieving this, and we need to go further and faster in how we work as an organisation, how we work with members and how we use our voice and partnerships to see wider change.

In June 2020, we described how we were working in collaboration with our friends and partners at Power to Change, Co-operatives UK, and Plunkett Foundation to improve our joint and individual work on diversity, equity and inclusion. We are sharing our approaches and will be discussing our individual and joint plans as we learn and improve our practices over the coming months.

Getting our house in order

As an initial step, we jointly commissioned Change Out to undertake a review of our own organisations and make recommendations on how we can improve our practice. As a result, we have begun action planning to make changes where change has been needed. We felt it was important to undertake immediate as well as long-term actions to show that we really mean business. But alongside that, we’ve also spent time within the organisation talking to each other – staff and trustees –about what diversity, equity and inclusion mean for each of us. We’ve tried to confront directly conversations that are sometimes difficult, sometimes awkward, and sometimes emotional. We haven’t always got this bit of the process right, and it feels like we were able to make progress by reflecting and talking to each other rather than simply jumping to the project planning stage.

Trustees and staff discussed and agreed an overarching statement of commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, which recognises that we have lots to do and commits us to learn and work with others, and to use the power and privilege that we have to good effect. We’ve taken steps to improve our internal policies and practice, introducing training and development for staff and trustees. We are taking action on things we can progress, while also planning for further action. We are taking an agile approach, which has worked well for us as a model in key areas of our work – learning and refining as we progress.

A particular area of focus has been changing our recruitment practices to focus on diversity. We’ve really questioned our old practices and challenged what we were doing – looking hard at improvements that we’d previously made which we realised were not working. Part of this was a recognition that we needed to take more time over recruitment. Recruiting well, equitably and fairly takes time, and we were so used to getting staff in place ASAP that we missed opportunities to bring more diversity into the organisation. We now plan our recruitment campaigns carefully from the start and are not afraid to take our time.

We’ve also questioned the old way of doing things. So we now focus more on values and aptitudes, rather than the long list of essential and desirable criteria that was too prescriptive. We advertise differently – more broadly and through our own and others’ networks. And we’ve introduced a longlisting phase, which gives us the opportunity to take a closer look at a much broader range of candidates through informal chats and exploration of their experience and aptitudes. All shortlisted candidates then receive one-to-one coaching to enable them to understand their strengths and weaknesses in the process so far and enable them to work on these.

It’s early days – but we have started to see some excellent results. There is more to do. We are honing our approach and talking to other specialist organisations about how we can improve further to bring even more diversity into our team. It is through this diversity that we will develop our culture to embrace equity and inclusion in all that we do and to reflect this to our members, other stakeholders and the wider world.

Our work with community organisations

Although our work on internal culture and practice will continue, we’re also developing our work with members and other local community organisations to learn from their practice, challenge and support them where we can, and improve the diversity of our own membership.

Last year, we introduced a free light-touch membership option for community organisations and groups recognising, that for some, a paid membership was not an option. This is because we want to remove any financial barriers to joining our network and benefiting from the support and help we all need from time to time. But there are also other barriers to some organisations being part of our network, and we need to understand and tackle these too.

We’ve recognised that we haven’t always prioritised diversity, equity and inclusion through our delivery and project work, largely as contracts and funding requirements didn’t mention this area. We have now committed to building diversity, equity and inclusion measures into our work, even if not required by funders or clients.

We are proud to be part of the consortium delivering £9.5m of National Lottery Community Funds through the Covid 19 Community Led Organisations Recovery Scheme. The majority of the funding was provided to BAME-led community organisations and organisations working directly with black and minority ethnic communities. We are now working with many of these groups to help them with business planning and organisational development.

One of the challenges for any membership organisation is striking the right balance of challenge and support for members. Locality’s focus on supporting place-based community organisations does raise important questions about how communities of place relate to communities of identity and interest. Just because a community organisation is working in an area of multiple disadvantages and committed to social justice, does not necessarily mean that they have embedded a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. We know that there is excellent practice across community organisations, but also that there is poor practice. We will be focusing research on this interaction and the experience of our members over the coming months.

We have already undertaken research to better understand the needs of BAME organisations, our role in providing more effective support, and also to look at how we work with specialist infrastructure organisations. I’ll be sharing the findings of this work in a future blog and how it informs our longer term plans.

As Vidhya Alakeson, CEO of our partner Power to Change, says, national organisations like ours “speak from a place of unexamined privilege”. We will not get everything right, and we are learning as we develop our plans with humility and a genuine commitment to improve the way we do things. We will continue to work with other national organisations supporting the community, charity and social enterprise sector to challenge ourselves and each other.