Some thoughts from Chris Hollins, Chair of Voluntary Action Leeds
Voluntary Action Leeds believes that every person has a unique gift and ability to make a positive difference. We will strive to create an equality of opportunity for all and value difference so that a fitting place for these gifts and abilities is found.
There is recognition within the sector that all organizations do not start from the same point, and that some, even larger and well established agencies, may be disadvantaged in a competitive market place. If VAL is to match its belief in equality and diversity, it has to find ways of making things better for and with marginalised groups.
VAL has engaged external consultants to look at our equality and diversity practices. We are well aware that we are a long established agency, with traditional links to those parts of the sector which may be larger, staffed, and generally more advantaged. We aim to support and promote the whole sector, a daunting task, and one which will inevitably be limited by resources. We are also clear that our priorities need to be driven as much by an evidence base as by passion and perceptions.
We can be pleased with the general impression that the respondents to this review have with regard to VAL’s equality and diversity practices, with 93% of comments from external organizations being favourable. I’ve not summarised the report findings in this paper so I encourage you to read the summary report available here.
Some of the barriers to achieving equality identified within the review were:
- A tension between geographical communities and communities of interest. Some people felt that locality based provision is convenient for the local authority but that this system of organisation does not necessarily play to the strengths of voluntary and community sector organizations.
- The fragility experienced by the sector puts those better able to compete in an advantageous position, whilst others are less able to compete, and even survive. This leads to structural inequalities with some organizations being disproportionately affected by new ways of working e.g. a deaf led organisation which faces barriers in its attempts to access services provided by the third sector.
- Smaller and disadvantaged organizations (which may not be small) will continue to be vulnerable for the foreseeable future.
- There are felt to be inherent difficulties in developing a unified voice for a hugely diverse and disparate sector. Whilst some organizations feel that they wanted to speak for themselves, others felt that parts of the sector feel very unrepresented and voiceless. Similarly, some people felt that there are inherent difficulties in reflecting an increasingly diverse sector.
- In responding to the question asking what success would look like for VAL in respect of equality and diversity, opinions can be placed on a spectrum which at one end is about VAL having a facilitative and enabling role and at the other about VAL taking a more active, leading role in setting the agenda.
Little would be gained though, from the effort put into an external consultation, if we did not use the experience to learn and find ways of ensuring that we keep ahead of a changing landscape.
The changes organizations would like to see can be summarised in the following ways, and we would be extremely interested in hearing further comments regarding these recommendations:
- Broadly speaking, organisations which represent marginalised communities were more likely than others to believe that VAL should set the agenda in respect of equality and diversity.
- The majority of those responding, and probably reflecting the long history of VAL, are longer established agencies. VAL needs to continue to ensure that it is both accessible to, and encourages dialogue with newer, smaller and less well resourced groups.
- In the current fragile environment, smaller groups feel they are at a disadvantage and not listened to. Larger agencies may also feel the same way, but are more likely to feel that they can advocate and campaign on their own behalf - VAL will help ensure all these voices are given weight.
- If VAL is to respond to a changing environment, mechanisms are necessary to fully understand how the needs of the sector are changing. A strong evidence base is required which drives and supports decision making, and choice of priorities.
- VAL is recognised as having a unique influencing and support role within the sector and city but like other agencies, it too suffers from diminishing resources to meet ever growing demand. VAL will ensure that it uses this position to face both ways – reflecting the needs and wishes of the sector as a whole and working proactively with partners to meet these needs. We will do this whilst also operating strategically to ensure that key players within the City – the funders, the statutory providers of services, and higher education (with its role in researching and understanding trends) also understand what the sector feels are the key priorities with Leeds communities.
- VAL needs to ensure that it continues to monitor and develop its practices with regard to equality and diversity, and to be aware of the need to better reflect the wide and diverse population of the City.
Our thanks to Derrick Armstrong and Dawn Cameron who carried out this review.
Chris Hollins, Chair, Voluntary Action Leeds
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