Race, gender, and disability are vital stepping stones when it comes to the real benefits of diversity

Multi-coloured hands in unison

Race, gender, and disability are vital stepping stones when it comes to the real benefits of diversity

There is a lot of talk about diversity in the charity sector and wider society. In this week's blog Joe Saxton looks at the importance of diversity in changing all aspects of society, as well as the impetus on organisations to embrace the cultural changes and management challenges that come with greater diversity.
By Joe Saxton

Back in 1633, the astronomer Galileo was forced by the Catholic church to recant his theory that the earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way round. His views were deemed heretical and he was kept under house arrest till his death nine years later. It took four centuries for the Catholic church to admit Galileo was right.

Darwin withheld publication of his theory of natural selection for nearly two decades in the 1830s, fearing the opposition it would face. He was so concerned that the established church would be against his ideas – not least the idea that people were descended from apes.

Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first job in TV because she was ‘unfit for television news’. Her different style of getting emotionally involved in the stories she covered was frowned upon, and when the evening TV news show she co-anchored failed, she was blamed (not the old white male co-host). She went on to daytime TV, host her own show, and became one of the richest women in America. She even interviews royalty now I hear.

Throughout history, it is people who have differing viewpoints that have moved science, politics, culture, and society forward. In most cases, large numbers of people all agreeing is a recipe for the status quo, not for progress.

As George Bernard Shaw, slightly paraphrased, said ‘the reasonable person adapts themselves to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to themself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable person.’

In the context of charities this is no less important. It was  'unreasonable' people in 1942 who decided children in occupied Greece in World War Two needed help, and so Oxfam was born. It was ‘unreasonable’ people in the late sixties who decided homelessness shouldn’t be tolerated and started Shelter. It was ‘unreasonable’ people who decided 50 years ago that the police and legal authorities should stop victimising and persecuting LGBTQ+ people and formed Stonewall.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the history of charity is a history of unreasonableness, a history of doing things against the grain of public opinion or conventional wisdom. Again, and again, we see charities and new ideas evolving from those who ignored the norms and accomplished the exceptional. These people often take these stands and have these ideas because their background, thinking, or experiences are different from their peers.

In other words, progress often happens because of diversity, and not homogeneity. One of my favourite quotes from the One Minute Manager series is: ‘If you and your manager agree on everything, one of you isn’t needed’. Its diversity, not homogeneity, that drives things forward in organisations and the wider society, both at the micro and macro level.’

Let me put this another way: organisations should not want diversity of background, of skin colour, of gender, of sexuality, of ability, just so they can tick the diversity box. They should want diversity because it is a fantastic strategy for driving change and improvement. Diversity is the precursor for a better organisation.

There is a downside to diversity - it means people may disagree. It can mean conflict and arguments. Diversity means that people in a team or organisation may come up with ideas that don’t match the perspectives or norms of those in charge. Let’s face it, if you are a CEO or chair and people spend their time disagreeing, it’s a pain in the butt.

On one of the boards, I sat on, there was a trustee who spent their time emailing me as chair with long emails, full of difficult points and questions. Some of them were bonkers, some infuriating, some personal, and some made a really good point. This trustee had a less formal education than anyone else on the board. I lost count of how many times it was suggested to me that we didn’t renew him for another term of office. It would have made for an easier life, that’s for sure. However, they were the person who stirred things up and addressed difficult issues. They were the living embodiment of diversity and it’s no good wanting diversity but then complaining when people have different views, ask awkward questions, or disagree with you.

I would suggest that all too often charities want the discernible aspects of diversity – race, gender, disability – but aren’t always welcoming to the changes in approach that need to come with diversity. Charities aren’t always good at embracing the fact that a diverse organisation is, or should be, a more challenging organisation – a more difficult organisation to manage, where leaders of all kinds need to expect to be questioned or challenged. Diverse organisations will have more ideas being suggested and tried out, more failures and more successes, more conflict and disagreement.

To put it another way, an organisation which has a diverse workforce by race, gender, disability, and the like, yet expects conformity in thought and behaviour is a cosmetic and hollow form of diversity. It is like employing Picasso and expecting him to decorate your living room in magnolia or soft peach. It is like buying a sports car and then just using it to do the supermarket shopping. As Marx said about liberals: ‘they want all the benefits of capitalism, without any of the downsides’. If you strive for diversity, you have to expect that it will turbo-charge your organisation - and indeed, you have to let it do just that.

Over the years nfpSynergy has produced reports about innovation, because we know that innovative organisations are the ones that drive change more quickly. They generate more ideas about how to try out new things, they have better ways to sift and assess the new ideas and put them into practice. If diversity is the precursor to change in an organisation, then innovation is the means by which the ideas and challenges that come out of diversity are harnessed.

Diversity is the beginning of a journey. It’s a journey that can reap huge rewards with organisational and individual benefits. Any organisation that wants to change and progress needs to embrace diversity and the (sometimes difficult) cultural changes it will bring. To do otherwise is to ignore the overwhelming evidence from history. Diversity can create meritocratic organisations, where the stakeholders represent wider society and where the best ideas from anybody happen. Organisations can then utilise the best ideas from any or all of those stakeholders and build the foundations to do an even better job.

Submitted by Ian Dawson (not verified) on 11 Mar 2021


Agree wholeheartedly but should add I'd rather have Oprah Winfrey on my Board as opposed to Piers Morgan!

Submitted by Derek McAuley (not verified) on 11 Mar 2021


With respect to Stonewall, assuming you mean the UK charity, it was actually formed on 24 May 1989 in response to section 28 of the Local Government Act not fifty years ago. The name chosen, of course, reflects the riots that took place in in 1969 outside the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village, New York in response to a Police raid and violence against a spontaneous demonstration of LGBT people. Whilst there were a few groups in existence before these events they resulted in several activist organisations being formed, such as the Gay Liberation Front. Stonewall came twenty years later.

Submitted by Gerrard McMahon (not verified) on 11 Mar 2021


Interesting article Joe, thanks for it. However, it starts badly with the common misconception that Galileo 'only proposed heliocentrism as a theory or a method to more simply account for the planets’ motions' The Church already knew about heliocentrism with Corpernicus dedicating his 'On the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs' to the Pope. Corpernicus also delayed published his book, but not because of the Church rather the ridicule he would face from fellow scientists who didn't believe in it! He wasn't put under house arrest though. What was the difference between the two men that the Church treated so differently? Basically, Galileo insisted his theory was in fact the truth even though he hadn't enough evidence to prove it beyond reasonable doubt. It would take many years before technology has progressed enough for scientists to be able to prove Galileo right.

Submitted by Orlando Arnold (not verified) on 11 Mar 2021


Hi Joe
Great blog! I’ve often felt that too many charities become complacent and potentially disconnected to the needs of the people they serve and unintentionally become self-serving as a result. Disruption through a truly diverse workforce can help break the inertia, however, the conditions to create such organisations can often be stymied through ‘out of touch’ boards and senior leadership teams. I hope that the greater awareness of diversity that is being generated in recent times is meaningfully realised through action rather than rhetoric. Time will tell I guess.

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