Elizabeth Balgobin is CEO of The Bowlby Centre, a mental health charity. She is also a trustee for the National Emergencies Trust, and a former Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the Chartered Institute of Fundraising. She has worked for numerous charities and non-profits over three decades.
I didn’t realise you could be paid for charity work. I had been asked to help a lecturer at Queen Mary University on his pro bono work, which meant I had inadvertently been volunteering for Amnesty International. Later I temped with Prospect Temp and discovered “Oh, people work in these organisations and get paid”. So, when I saw the ad for Circle 33 (a housing association, now Clarion), it drew me in because I had experienced homelessness as a child.
Diversity can lead to a bottom-line financial benefit. I was working on a programme to encourage diversity in the square mile City of London. The most successful one of those, was Lloyds TSB, as it was at the time. They took on Bangladeshi people in Whitechapel who reflected people coming into the branch. They found their profits improved in branch because people were speaking home languages and were able to transact more than basic banking business.
The voluntary sector has moved away from doing diversity work. It used to be everyone had equal opportunities training, and it would be part of the induction. We all moved away from doing that, while I have watched how over this century, the private sector has got better. It’s not perfect, but it has got much better. And we have slipped down as a sector. I see fewer people of colour as CEOs now than I saw in the 90’s.
People in the third sector thought “we’re good people and we know this stuff”. And it blinded them to their bias, it blinded them to heteronormative practices. It was around the same time that we had government saying we need to professionalise. More government contracts were taken on at that time. We got very good at ticking boxes, and I think we became less willing to look at our own practice.
It’s been exhausting for people of colour to have to do this work for our white-bodied counterparts. It’s been exhausting expecting us to be the people to teach this or to stand up and speak up. I’ve stepped away from trying to be that person because it literally depleted me. There’s only so much you can do with people if they’re still holding on to, “but we’re good”. It’s tinkering around the edges of things.
What does “or equivalent” mean when your first word is degree? I found myself not being shortlisted for CEO roles, even though I’d been a CEO for 20-odd years, because I don’t have a degree. Why are you knocking out people who have a proven track record?
Trust your gut. When I was in my early 20s, I was still in the private sector at that point. I saw things that didn’t feel right, and I didn’t know how to challenge it then. I didn’t trust my gut that I should speak up at that point, even though I felt I should. I doubted too much. The worst that would have happened is they would have got rid of me for being a troublemaker. But I would have found a way to continue working and sometimes our insecurities, wanting security, wanting to have stability, holds us in a position that isn’t healthy for us.
Cause & Effect is a series from Hope, in which leading figures who have been involved in building and promoting good causes tell us what they’ve learned from their experiences. Interview by Michael Isaacs.