National Conference Speaker: Senator Ratna Omidvar

Finding the data to drive diversity

By the middle of the month, Canadian senator Ratna Omidvar will have the first part of what could be a step towards what she calls “nation building of another kind.’’

On February 11, Canada’s national statistics body will release its first survey of diversity on the boards of the nation’s charities and not for profit sector.

The survey is a response to an open letter Senator Omidvar wrote last June in The Philanthropist, where she called on Canadian charities and non-profits to scrutinise their own diversity. The sector employs two million Canadians, contributes eight per cent to the nation’s GDP but, as Senator Omidvar, asked in her article: “What about its diversity?’’

Senator Omidvar, who is one of the keynote speakers at the Philanthropy Australia conference in April, knew that the first step to increasing diversity – and tackling the scourge of racism – was getting hard data.

“What little evidence we have – which is not national – or annual, so it’s hard to find trends…shows the [charity and not for profit] sector serves a very diverse population but it’s governance is not diverse itself,’’ Senator Omidvar says.

She has arrived at this point after a lifetime of public service – becoming an international expert on migration, diversity and inclusion, after she arrived in Canada from Iran almost 40 years ago. In 2016, she was appointed to the Canadian Senate and has served as Deputy Chair of the Special Senate Committee on the Charitable Sector.

But this particular work and its possibilities is giving Senator Omidvar a sense of excitement.

“Well there’s a narrative out in Canada about anti-racism right now, which is very powerful, coming out of the situation in the United States,’’ she says. “For the first time in this country we are owning that we may not be racist, but our systems are racist, and we need to do something about those systems.’’

“It’s not just against the Indigenous peoples or black peoples, it’s generally about exclusion from positions of power and privilege. And I know charities and not for profits don’t like to think of themselves as powerful and privileged people but look at the levers of influence that they have,’’ Senator Omidvar explains. “They are ambassadors…they can influence others, so they are very powerful and privileged people when you think about it. 

Senator Omidvar acknowledges that for many charities and not for profits, trying to find an appropriate candidate for their board often devolves to who someone knows.

“Charities never get asked about their motives and their governance – what they want to do is good work,’’ she says. “But what they don’t realise by going down the same old route of who’s a good guy or a good girl [is that] you’re likely to get good guys and good girls like you and that has been proven again and again.’’

The diversity survey, which will provide data and analysis, is a rare snapshot of the sector’s governance. The Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) conducts an annual survey of the nation’s charity and not for profit sector’s governance – the issues, resourcing, and capacities – and has established a set of sector-wide governance principles that includes diversity as part of its discussion of board composition.

“The arguments for the importance of board diversity have their roots in social justice, drawing on principles of equality and fairness. However, research demonstrates that diversity on the board can contribute to improved performance,’’ the AIDC principle states.

“Diverse boards also send an important message about the values of an organisation and the society it wishes to create.’’ But there is no hard data yet on how effectively that has been applied in the Australian charity and not for profit sector.

An Australian survey of gender diversity of community sector boards conducted in 2012 found that women made up just over half the number of board directors among the organisations who responded to the survey. However, when it came to the office bearers’ roles, more than half of those positions were held by men.

In 2018, a survey of UK charities found almost 80 per cent of their senior leadership teams had no one from an ethnic minority background. And 62 per cent of the UK’s largest charities had all-white boards.

For Senator Omidvar, the Canadian data will provide guidance on how to achieve greater diversity.

“My goal is to change the annual reporting forms of our main charity regulator – there’s a form every charity or not for profit must fill out annually and I want to insist that form be amended to include a question about diversity and then we get an annual picture where we can follow trends,’’ she says.

“The second step is deciding what you do about it. I could think of legislation – every charitable not for profit organisation must disclose at an annual level their diversity plans and if they’ve made progress on it – other jurisdictions may want to actually impose a quota.’’

“You could also go lower – governance terms must be reduced. I know lots of charities that don’t have governance terms, so it’s the same old people, over and over again. You can structure your by-laws in such a way to discourage or encourage renewal and it’s the by-laws that are at the heart of this,’’ Senator Omidvar says. “[S]ystemic barriers often work this way: they are unintended. but they have a huge impact on certain people in certain kinds of work. So that’s the by law route – organisation change thyself.’’

There is, of course, another way – the government route, whereby change is forced on the sector.

In the absence of data, Senator Omidvar is trusting her intuition, that there is an appetite for change within the sector that will enable it to embrace greater diversity.

“I’m hoping there’s an energy, I’m sensing an energy in the sector,’’ she says. “I’m excited about this.’’

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