Five ambitions for truly valuing diversity

In the first of a series, Social Finance co-founder Toby Eccles reflects on the importance of diversity in fulfilling our mission and improving our impact.

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Photo by James McDonald on Unsplash.

At Social Finance we want to make social change happen. We have understood since our foundation that this means we need a diversity of thought within the organisation. Initially we understood this to mean that we would bring rigorous financial and analytical thinking to social problems, as this was often lacking in the sector and was sometimes a barrier to getting engagement from government or other longer term funding streams. Our aim was that by adding financial skills, with a mission focus on improving the lives of disadvantaged people, we could make a difference.

As we grew in experience and understanding, we have added other skills and knowledge to help navigate social change through the various gates and barriers that it needs to pass through to enable scaled and lasting change. We have understood the importance of quantitative and qualitative data, understanding the constraints and frustrations of the public sector, and the need of real insight from people with lived experience. We’ve added consultants, civil servants, data scientists, user researchers and operational managers to the mix. They’ve broadened our understanding and scope to generate change.

But that is not enough. Our mission is to ensure that programs for disadvantaged families and communities are built with a genuine focus on people’s needs, rather than the needs of systems of money and power and authority that are typically setting up the programmes in the first place. However well meaning those programmes are, without a deep understanding of marginalisation and structural barriers that affect people’s lives, they are in danger of imposing the intuition of more privileged members of society onto programmes built for disadvantaged people. These structural barriers include structural racism, the impact of gender and class in our society, sexuality and disability. Programmes can be designed for some concept of normal that may have little to do with the actual lives of those engaging with them, leaving many without support or with support that is poorly designed for their needs.

Recent events have shown us that Social Finance has significant weaknesses in its work. Specifically, we have not considered racial justice in our programme design and implementation to the extent needed. Addressing this and similar gaps presents a huge opportunity for us to improve our impact and fulfilment of our mission. If we are able to truly talk to power and resources, both private and public; and at the same time deeply engage with and understand the needs of communities and the people we seek to serve, then we are in a position to make really significant change happen. Particularly if we are able to demonstrate those community needs in the analytic, evidence led, data driven, value for money driven language of the commissioner.

I can’t think of any organisations that succeed in holding understanding and insight in both the powerful and the excluded in the same organisation. It will be challenging. To get close we have work to do, both to understand what we should be doing ourselves versus what we should be doing to support others and work through partners; how we build the right diverse community and inclusive culture; and how we develop our work practices and processes to improve the programmes we develop.

Vision for the future

We are developing a collective vision on this at the moment, but my personal starting point would look something like this:

  1. We are known for and succeed in developing inclusive programmes, where the specific needs of different communities are taken into account and embedded, both in the design of the programme and in the way that it is managed and adapts to its environment.
  2. We are asked to engage in reviews of present services provided by others to understand and highlight issues of equity of access or outcomes and to work with local partners to understand how services could be made more accessible and/or affective.
  3. We work with a community of local and national partners, bringing insights and understanding of particular communities of geography or identity and who we similarly support in their missions.
  4. We are a leader in a wider community of social change/impact/investment organisations bringing about changes in behaviour and practice to make equity, inclusion and racial justice practice more fully used and understood across the sector.
  5. Social Finance is a community where the expertise and insight to engage with communities is as valued as the expertise and insight to engage with decision makers and those who hold resources. All those within our diverse community feel valued and able to bring all of themselves to work. People are curious about each other, supportive and forgiving of those on the journey.

We would love to hear from others seeking to embed racial justice and wider social equity into their programmes and organisations. We would like to share learning and challenges and to hold each other to account for the changes we are all keen to make.

In the next blog I want to talk about two specific challenges that I’m keen for help on:

  • Can we make our work in racial justice sustainable while ensuring that we do not take away resources or opportunities for those with deep experience already working in the area — in fact, can we use our privilege to increase the pie for everyone and still develop sustainable work ourselves?
  • If different stakeholders are uncomfortable with each other’s language, how can we find a voice that brings people together rather than pushes them apart?

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these issues. I can be contacted at toby.eccles@socialfinance.org.uk.

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We combine social and financial insight to help our partners make a difference to enduring problems — where outcomes are poor and costs of failure high.

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