Campaigning organizations need to do a better job at reaching diverse communities

uest post from Foyez Syed of Save the Childrenfoyez syed

I went into my local chippie this weekend and got talking to Ahmed, the person serving me behind the counter. I told him I worked at Save the Children as a conflict and humanitarian campaigner. To my surprise he instantly jumped to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, talking about the blockade in place and the role of the Saudi-led coalition in the crisis. It got me thinking, how do we reach people like Ahmed who’s passionate and knowledgeable about the issues that we campaign on, but wouldn’t come to us?

One of the biggest barriers to reaching Ahmed is the lack of diversity in our workforce in the sector. It means Ahmed is never thought of as a potential supporter. Or if he is, the organisation lacks the ideas, expertise or experience to reach him. In short, the dismal absence of diversity often results in campaigns targeted at the same old audience, with the same old strategy and the same old tactics. Does that sound familiar?

The absence of diversity in our sector is no coincidence. It is a symptom of our society based on the inequality that marginalised people face from birth – institutional discrimination, inherent bias and much more. Then, there is the whole issue of unpaid internships, which means if you can afford to work for free you get a head start. If you’re not from a white middle-class background, you get locked out of the sector.

I’ve experienced this myself. I struggled to get my first job in the sector. Even though I was a serial volunteer, doing everything from campaigning in my own community to being a trustee for a local charity. Even though I ran my own campaign and reached far more people on my own than some charities do. Even though I’ve been on Campaign Bootcamp, a highly thought of programme in the campaigns space. I couldn’t get a break, until Oxfam’s trainee scheme came along.

the best and the brightest
the best and the brightest

Oxfam’s Campaigns, Policy and Influencing department recognised there was a problem and that’s why they set up a trainee scheme to recruit for diversity. The insights of the trainees from a diverse set of backgrounds unlock the doors to new audiences and lead to more inclusive campaigning. It helps the organisation recognise the structural oppression that exists against marginalised communities. It makes the voice of the organisation more authentic and often more legitimate. Especially if the trainees are from the same background as the organisation’s beneficiaries, as they can then speak from experience and bring a perspective that is so often missed.

Overall, I loved being on the trainee scheme. Admittedly, it was challenging at times going against the grain of the organisation, but I felt it was important for me to do so. Being a trainee provided me with the perfect platform for this. I felt like my opinion was valued. It leaves me better placed to challenge things in my new organisation. I’ve learnt to go about things in a way that is solution focused and shows the value of change to the organisation rather than just voice my frustrations.

Oxfam’s trainee scheme pays living wage and the application stage is blind – just two examples of how the scheme does a great job at addressing the root causes of inequality, but schemes like this are few and far between. Anyone working in the aid sector in the UK will probably have been struck by the overwhelmingly white background of its staff. You only have to take a look round. But that shouldn’t let you stop reaching out to diverse communities and here’s why.

In a recent volunteering role, I helped set up a consultation process where I had to raise several points around diversity and that’s fine. I’m often in the best place to speak about diversity – if I didn’t raise those points I’m not sure if marginalised communities would have been reached during the consultation process. It becomes an issue though, when people become reliant on me always to raise the issue. Why should it always have to be me? Firstly, it’s so draining and secondly why can’t I talk about other issues that I’m passionate about? Why do I have to end up being typecast as the guy who always bangs on about diversity?

That’s where the importance of having allies come in. The sad truth is that when allies speak up it has so much more impact than when I bring the issue of diversity up myself. When it comes from an ‘unusual suspect’ people are more likely to take notice.

I’m very lucky that I sit in a team of allies, so I’m not the only one in my team raising the issue of diversity and talking about how we reach diverse communities. It helps us create more systematic campaigns, campaigns actually addressing the root causes of the issues facing people.

I think it’s time for the sector to be honest with itself and admit it can do much better on reaching out to diverse

audiences. As change makers we are all about making the world a better place. We should all care about diversity as it intersects with all our change goals.

So here are a few questions to continually ask yourself:

  • Is diversity the last thing I think about when planning a campaign (if I think about it at all)?
  • What more can I be doing to reach out to diverse communities?
  • How do I ensure diversity is considered as an important part of the workplace?
  • Is diversity the first to go when prioritising time and resources?
  • Could I be doing more as an ally (whether that’s to my colleagues or ‘beneficiaries’)?

There are many reasons why diversity is important. Not just that is it the right thing to do, but also because it’s the smart thing to do. Not reaching out to the most diverse communities is a missed opportunity to maximise the impact of your campaign.

Next time you’re planning a campaign, ask yourself ‘will Ahmed ever get to hear about this?’ If not, why not?

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4 Responses to “Campaigning organizations need to do a better job at reaching diverse communities”
  1. Excellent post! We need to do far, far more as you say. I remember getting my first job in the development sector in the UK, working on Latin America, and friends in the Latin American community in Leeds said, “wow, amazing, normally Latin Americans in the UK don´t get these jobs!” (incidentally “Latin American” is not even a category on the UK census nor on most equal opps forms employers ask for. I generally put “other”). I must admit I felt a bit of a hoax, having a British father (Dunmore!) and having been brought up and educated in the UK. Nonetheless my Latin American side has enabled me to build bridges in many aspects of my work. Diversity also helps build much more open and democratic working cultures. It makes us think more sensitively about the language we use, the way meetings are conducted, the way we relate to one another, our biases and our power, our leadership and management styles, and of course enables us to connect more organically to diaspora communities in the UK and elsewhere. Here´s to diversity enriching the development sector in the UK much, much more, as it already has done in music, sport, art, literature, theatre and other fields. It feels like we´re a little behind.

  2. Rozanne Chorlton

    Excellent article making a point that – apparently – needs repeating everywhere in this country all the time. Thankyou, Foyez Syed, please don’t stop!

  3. Gareth Price-Jones

    Absolutely spot on. Interestingly, when I started with Oxfam as a shop manager in London many moons ago, we had super diverse shop teams – from the stereotyped ‘little old ladies’ to disabled people, Mormons on mission, male Asian fashion victims (‘This dress is FAN-TAS-TIC!’) and religiously inspired Muslims and Sikhs. When I moved into HQ and HR/Management/Program/Policy roles the diversity fell away, with the notable exception of humanitarian expats, where the white middle class folks like me were leavened with a chunk of people from wherever the big disaster had been 5-10 years before.

    However, a lightbulb moment for me came when talking to a British Asian colleague from HQ who described a toxic environment for minorities in my (then) INGO. This was a shock for me – Okay, they might be mostly white, probably a function of where the HQ was located, but surely they were all socially aware, lefty, tree-hugging considerate colleagues? Nope, and the big barriers were education (degree and masters requirements for jobs that don’t really need them), inspiration (we talk to and inspire people who look like us – highly educated middle class whites), career path support (those internships in particular, but also experience requirements that rule out women with families or less wealthy people who have had to take whatever job was available for big chunks of their careers). There was also a stack of issues about being constantly patronised, how we network, how we speak and think, and how we manage people, but you’d have to ask the right people (i.e. not a white middle class man) for the details on those.

    But the point I absolutely want to pick up on is Foyez’s call for allies – we can’t speak for those from a different background but we can make space for their voices to be heard. In particular, my experience has been that if you raise issues as a white middle class man then it makes it feel less like an attack on the white middle class men who are currently likely in power, and you can move more quickly on to practical solutions. You can say things like: ‘as white men we need to raise this particularly strongly’ precisely because then our black, Latino, Arab and Asian colleagues don’t have to be the one banging on about diversity, and can talk about all the other stuff. And surely that’s where we realise the value for the affected people we’re here to serve.

    Thanks for this post – really great to hear about Oxfam’s scheme and will push for more like it.