Srabani Sen: If you think DEI is a luxury you can't afford right now – think again

The last few months have been extremely tough for the charty sector. For some organisations, the loss of income has been so severe, that not only does it feel like falling off a cliff, but it feels like one of those nightmares where you fall and fall and never seem to hit the earth.

Some organisations have furloughed so many staff members that their organisations feel like virtual ghost ships, the halls of Zoom echoing in the absence of the voices of those who can’t be with us right now.

I’ve even heard of some charity leaders so caught in the headlights, they are paralysed, unable to make some of the tough decisions that are likely to better secure their future; meanwhile their resources are dwindling exponentially, putting their organisations in existential threat.

For many organisations, finding ways to move forward with diversity and inclusion feels like a luxury that they simply can’t afford right now. Well, let me offer you three reasons why you might want to rethink that view. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, headlines proclaimed that as a nation, we have not faced such a crisis since the second world war. Speaking of World War II, I believe it was Churchill who said “never let a good crisis go to waste”.

Crises are phenomenal opportunities to ditch what hasn’t been working for your organisation – in some cases for years – and to try something new. And this is where some people muddle their thinking about diversity and inclusion. Making the most of diverse talent and leading organisations in ways that are truly inclusive isn’t about adding extra things to your to do list, it is about HOW you work. It is about doing things differently, creatively, better. All the research proves that genuinely diverse and inclusive organisations are more successful, more resilient, better at problem solving and decision making. If now isn’t the time for resilience, for ‘wicked’ problem solving and top-notch decision-making, then when is?

The second reason: time. Chief executives and senior leaders are working their socks off right now. There really is no doubt about it. But for some other staff who are not on furlough, time has opened up. Lots of the day-to-day things that eat up time, e.g. commuting, have simply gone. Think about it. For one person, one or two hours a day of not having to commute to an office equates to five or 10 hours of extra time a week. If you had a group of six people working on diversity and inclusion that would be between 30 and 60 hours a week or between 120 and 240 hours a month of concentrated work on moving your organisation forward on diversity and inclusion.

You might have to bring in a little support to help the group so they have the right knowledge and expertise to hand to help them make informed choices, but just think about how much you could move forward on something that many organisations de-prioritise due to lack of time.

And thirdly, values. As a sector, we pride ourselves on our values. We tell ourselves it is what makes us different. The question I would ask you is this: when do values matter the most? When you are moving along – business as usual – and beyond the day to day challenges that all organisations face, things are generally going well or at least OK – is that when values matter? Or do they matter most when the chips are down, when the storm we are sailing through is tossing us around, bumping and bruising us until we are not sure which way is up any more?

Values are only real if we live them when times are tough. If we really want to claim the mantle of values for our own, we have to keep moving forward with diversity and inclusion. Otherwise who are we?

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