Charity boards should reflect diversity

After celebrating 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 isn’t that diverse.

Senator Ratna Omidvar. | Photo courtesy of Senate of Canada

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.

Between December 4, 2020 and January 18, 2021, 8,835 people completed the survey. Among them, 14% identified as immigrants to Canada, 11% said they belonged to a visible-minority group, 8% identified as LGBTQ2+, 6% said they had a disability and 3% identified as First Nations, Métis or Inuit.

Readers may well ask: Why does it matter who sits on the boards, so 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 a significant 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 million Canadians and contributed 8% to the country’s 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. The government and the sector must respond.

The government must collect diversity data every year. The Statistics Canada 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. The country and the sector could see if progress is being made based on clear, ongoing evidence.

The government should also compel the sector to disclose its diversity plans, as it did with corporations under Bill C-25. Only 30% 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, the sector needs to take concrete action.

First, charities and non-profits must proactively create diversity plans and publish them for their members and for 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 underrepresented 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.

Senator Ratna Omidvar represents Ontario in the Senate.