Omidvar: The diversity deficit in the boardrooms of Canada’s charities

Good op-ed and practical recommendations by Senator Omidvar:

As we celebrate Black History Month, we continue to hear loud calls for more diversity in newsrooms across the country, in corporations, and in Parliament. Canadians have correctly pointed out a diversity gap in all those power structures.

But the diversity deficit doesn’t end there; it’s also in the boardrooms of charities and non-profits. It’s always been an open secret that, despite the amazing work it does to help Canadians from all backgrounds, the sector’s leadership wasn’t that diverse.

In June last year, I issued an open letter challenging charities and non-profits to take a hard look at themselves, and ask what they could do to increase diversity in the sector. Many heard my call and wanted to do more. The first step was getting data.

After learning about my challenge, Statistics Canada, along with sector leaders, designed a survey to provide the first-ever snapshot of diversity in governance. The recently released survey found that, outside of gender, the boards of charities were not yet inclusive of Indigenous peoples, racial minorities, LGBTQ2+, and the disabled.

From Dec. 4, 2020, to Jan. 18, 2021, 8,835 people completed the survey. Among them, 14 per cent identified as immigrants to Canada; 11 per cent said they belonged to a visible-minority group; eight per cent identified as LGBTQ2+; six per cent said they had a disability; and three per cent identified as First Nations, Metis, or Inuit.

Readers may well ask: Why does it matter who sits on the boards, as long as people receive their services? It matters, because the boards of charities set the course, decide on priorities, determine how money gets allocated and spent, and approve institutional policies ranging from hiring to procurement, from harassment to promotions.

Charities are not an insignificant part of our society. More than 85,000 charities and 85,000 non-profits are registered in Canada. Before the pandemic, they employed close to two millions Canadians and contributed eight per cent to the GDP. What they do and how they do it matters.

Now there’s some hard evidence to stand on, we have a clear way forward. Both the government and the sector must respond.

The government must collect diversity data every year. The StatCan survey is a start, but no further studies have been planned. For the sake of certainty, the Canada Revenue Agency should include questions about diversity on boards of directors on the T3010 and the T1044 tax forms.

This way, the data could be fulsome, disaggregated, and provide an accurate picture of diversity in the sector every year. Based on clear, ongoing evidence, the country and the sector could see if progress is being made.

The government should also compel the sector to disclose its diversity plans, as it did with corporations under Bill C-25. Only 30 per cent of the survey participants said their organization had a diversity plan. That is unacceptable, and the government should require that this information be made public.

I’m encouraged that the sector responded to the survey by saying, “(These data are) an important opportunity for us to look critically at who is at the table and who has decision-making power in our organizations.” Now that the evidence is clear, it needs to take concrete action.

First, charities and non-profits must proactively create diversity plans and publish them for their members and Canadians to see; they mustn’t wait for the government to compel them. Second, the plans should include diversity targets to increase the representation of under-represented groups on boards and in senior management. Last, they should convene a sector-wide conversation about race, racism, and diversity.

If we’re truly determined to stamp out racism, we need all sectors to step up to the plate. Charities and non-profits do so much good for Canadians. Now is the time for them to look inward, be intentional, and truly reflect the diversity of Canada.

Source: The diversity deficit in the boardrooms of Canada’s charities

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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