Centring diversity, equity and inclusion

Published: 30 November 2022 
Author: Holly Donagh 
A long atrium in the Paul Hamlyn Foundation offices. The atrium is a high-ceilinged white room, with long bench seating and a sloping glass roof
Photo credit: Sylvie Pope

Holly Donagh, Director of Strategic Learning, Insight and Influence, reflects on our experience to date and shares our learning which might be useful for others embarking on this work.

It is two years since we published our commitment to being anti-racist and to embedding the principles of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) more deeply into everything we do at the Foundation.

Since then we have published annual progress reports on our action plan and had some moments of reflection (such as a blog written by colleagues for Alliance magazine on Uprooting Racism in Grant-making, and our annual review for 2021/22 ) but we thought it would be useful to share a bit more on where we are now and offer some thoughts for those embarking on similar processes.

As the Director of Strategic Learning, Insight and Influence I have a particular interest in how we learn and how we can collaborate and exchange ideas. I’ve picked out a few themes and reflected on what might be useful for others. But I want to stress this has not come from a formal evaluation process and is to a large extent my take’ which will be partial and coloured by my own positionality and interests. The question of how best to audit our progress (with a level of objectivity, but not a hugely capacity-hungry process) is something we are still thinking about and an area where we would really welcome the thoughts of peers.

Learning programme

One of the most significant pieces of work that we’ve undertaken since we made our commitment in 2020 was working with a learning partner. We commissioned consultants to help us between February to September 2021. Through this process we asked all staff and trustees to share their experiences of working in the Foundation, and we worked through a programme of online learning sessions with a specific focus on race and tackling racism. We felt that this process would be a pre-condition for effective grant-making in the context of social justice.

Reflecting on this part of our learning I would say I have mixed feelings. And I frame this by saying this is not about the work of our consultants but my own sense of what I missed, our preparedness for the process and the challenges I observe in doing this work. We didn’t do enough to support staff and we also found it really hard to sustain a single track of learning for all staff and trustees. It was particularly hard for our staff of colour who engaged positively with the process but too often found it bruising and demoralising. Personally, I feel I underestimated the weight of this process on colleagues (of all backgrounds), pulling in the personal, political and professional into one space and I’m sure that at least in part that reflects my blind spots as a white senior leader.

The process did push everyone to engage in a different way and have conversations that we may have shied away from in the past, it kick started our thinking about learning and unlearning and has helped to normalise the conversation about race and racism within our leadership (which is largely white).

Reflections for other partners who might be planning something similar;

  • Attend carefully to the brief (and who is involved in setting the parameters and appointing consultants) – is it a learning process, an audit process or both, and how prepared are you for these different aspects?
  • Be prepared to stop or slow down if it is obvious you are uncovering difficult issues that need to be properly unpacked
  • Give time to working through how staff want to connect with the work – particularly staff with lived experience of the subject being discussed – are they being supported, and given genuine agency in the process?

There is a really strong commitment to learning at PHF, and many of the sessions we have led, whether for all staff or in smaller teams, have been resonant and formed important steps in moving us forward. However, we do recognise the tendency to think that learning alone will fix’ the challenges of institutional blind-spots and, as one of our staff members memorably said: you can’t read your way out of racism”. As we go forward we are trying to be intentional in our learning, thoughtful about who should do what learning and mindful that just because we have been exposed to an idea it doesn’t necessarily mean we have learnt or that we all have the same understanding. I would really encourage others to undertake a learning programme but with these thoughts in mind.

Governance and planning

We’ve replaced what was a broad advisory DEI group made up of staff from across the organisation with a task-focussed group which combines staff and trustees working together to determine and prioritise key areas for more action. One of the challenges we’ve had is in how to manage and keep track of what has become a long list of actions, how to communicate progress and maintain awareness across all staff and trustees and ensure nothing falls between the cracks. We know we need more capacity to help do this but we are also clear that this is not one person’s job and the accountability and responsibility has to be shared and particularly centred in the leadership team and the board.

We have moved to six board meetings a year from four, to allow for more learning at board level and more oversight of our practice.

Forming a group of staff and trustees focussed on delivery has been new for PHF and required each member of the group to play a slightly different role to the one they normally play. We want this group to model inclusive and non-hierarchical ways of working and this is both exciting and hard. We are still in the early days of this work, and we will be able to share more later.

Questions and reflections

  • We are looking at ways to make the governance of work across the different aspects of diversity, equity and inclusion more active – not simply check-in and review, having four trustees with a clear line of sight to the work with staff will help with this but we know we have a way to go
  • We are constantly thinking about how to mainstream good equity and inclusion practice across all areas of our work and governance whilst also wanting to be able to zero-in on challenges and track progress in order to be held accountable. Our new task-focussed group is helping us test outs ways of doing this and I think we will refine and iterate over the next year.

Data and evaluation

All of our grant teams have their own objectives and plans in respect of anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion which are tailored to their contexts. Across all grant-making we have focussed on improving our data and have audited all our grants for the second time using the Funders for Race Equality Alliance audit. The audit shows that where we have intentionally prioritised communities and people who have historically been under-funded, we have been able to change the pattern of our grant-making. We’ve also supported the Foundation Practice Ratings work which is a really useful new tool.

We still have a way to go to bring-in feedback in a consistent way to our processes and ensure that we don’t become a closed loop. We have been undertaking a review of our Backbone funding which is a strategic invitation only fund – this has raised really important issues about the tension of this way of working in this invitation-only’ way and our equity ambitions. It’s also raised the question of how best our staff can engage the organisations we fund in helpful and appropriate discussions about their diversity, equity and inclusion practice and what support we could and should be giving.

Questions and reflections

  • Data is really helpful in these discussions but without a deeper sense of the purpose and strategic direction its usefulness can be diluted. We are thinking about how data supports and validates strategy rather than leads it
  • Whist there have been some really helpful and productive collaborative spaces for funders to discuss how their work is progressing in this area, it can still feel like we are reinventing the wheel, particularly for some aspects of system and process – we’d love to find the time for more practice sharing in this space.

Pace of change

For some of our staff and trustees the process of moving forward and embedding our commitment to this work has been too slow, for others it has moved on from certain issues or conversations too quickly and we have not had the time and space to constructively disagree or go deeper. I think this goes to the heart of how as managers we conceptualise culture change, what it looks like and what we think we need to do to drive it – whether that is directing and steering or letting go and helping things to flourish by other means.

Reflections for others planning something similar

  • Don’t rush but do act with urgency – our experience would suggest that where we’ve pushed forward without paying attention to all the nuances, we’ve made mistakes, some of which have been painful and significant. Equally, we have to keep moving forward, however imperfectly, or risk the inertia that comes from fear.
  • Increasingly we view diversity, equity and inclusion not as a workstream or set of actions but the fulcrum around which all of our work turns. This is helping with planning and ultimately reducing the number of processes for organising and prioritising our work as well as providing a single line of sight for staff and trustees.

I’m wary of ending by coming back to the idea of the journey – this is definitely a cliché! – but I do feel we’ve made some progress over the last two years that all our staff and trustees can be proud of and it is their commitment and belief that has made it happen. But we do of course have much further to go. There is joy in aiming for a future where everyone can feel real liberation, and as an organisation with resources and wide-ranging networks it is exciting to consider what more we can do to help bring this about.

I’d welcome thoughts and ideas from our colleagues who have been very generous in sharing their expertise without us throughout. You can get in touch with us at DEI@phf.org.uk

Holly Donagh
Director, Strategic Learning, Insight and Influence