Meeting 9 – 9/4/21


  • Welcome.
  • Updates.
  • The CEO’s role in leading systems change:
    • Introductory thoughts
    • Discussion
    • Next steps/priorities
  • Other resources/ideas.
  • Next meeting.
  • AOB.

1. Welcome:

Mark welcomed everyone to the meeting.

2. Updates:

Everyone gave a brief update on their work to advance racial justice.

3. The CEO’s role in leading systems change:

Mark opened the discussion with some observations:

How might we as CEOs be able to play a useful role in advancing racial justice more broadly in the sector – ie beyond the “day job” aspect of his CEO role?  What might be holding us back – for example, concerns about our legitimacy, ability and capacity to play a role on this issue.  How should we overcome these observations to be able to play an effective role in advancing racial justice in our organisations and more broadly. 

Having read ‘The Dawn of System Leadership’ (Senge et al), Mark believes there are 2 key questions we need to ask ourselves as CEOs and our role in the system:

How brave are we being?  Not just in terms of putting our heads above the parapet (eg with our boards or publicly), but how much am I genuinely challenging myself – eg if all my contacts and networks are white liberals, how much will I be challenged beyond my/their norms and that particular interpretation of anti-racism?  The risk is we will default to what’s comfortable.

What is our accountability?  Not just to values and principles, but to retaining focus and seeing things through.  In collaborations it’s quite easy to start something and to get people excited – but less easy to enact real change over the long haul and marshal the commitment and resources to do so.

Some of the points that emerged from the discussion included:


  • Most members of the group feel or have felt a sense of “imposter syndrome” on the issue of racial justice – lacking skills, legitimacy, etc.  We need to acknowledge this and not let it stop us – but we also need to not put ourselves up as experts or role models.  Our legitimacy doesn’t come from being experts, it comes from engaging with the issue – from listening and learning. 
  • We have significant power as CEOs, and we work with People of Colour who don’t have the power we have but who deal with the issues of racial injustice all the time but without the privilege and power we hold.  This is just one of the things that gives us the  responsibility to act on this issue.
  • The key thing is to listen really hard, learn as much as possible and prepare as well as possible.  We need to persevere beyond the doubt and the fear of getting it wrong, which may never go away, and which may be a helpful guard against over confidence.  We should not let questions of skills and capacity stop us.  It is more about attitude – being empathetic and humble.  We all have what it takes to jump in on this issue.
  • Similarly on systems change – ie seeing ourselves and our organisation’s place in a system that perpetuates racial injustice.  Although the Senge paper says that systems change work takes certain skills to do it effectively (eg to move beyond the temptation for quick wins and small “feelgood” actions), we can all learn and this should not stop us from making a start.  
  • Our CEO role gives us power, connections, responsibility both within our “day job” and beyond it when it comes to issues such as racial justice.  As part of a systems change approach, we need to think about the opportunities we have to play a role in advancing racial justice:
    • within our organisations;
    • within the networks our organisations are part of;
    • within our own personal and professional networks.
  • Most members of the group are discussing DEI issues with their boards – either specifically or within broader governance action plans.  Some are concerned that racial justice may be downplayed within a wider DEI focus, as racism is the hardest issue to discuss, particularly with those closest to you – such as trustees.
  • The engagement and support of the Chair of the Board has been crucial for some members in progressing the issue of DEI and racial justice internally.  In one case, the Chair is part of a network of Chairs from the not-for-profit and private sectors that is meeting on a regular basis to consider their role in anti-racism work.
  • Putting racial justice in the context of both values and, where possible, mission are key ways foundation CEOs can advance this issue with their Boards.
  • For some members, there is a clear link between racial justice and their core values (eg social justice) and/or their charitable objects/current mission (eg disability and mental health where outcomes for People of Colour are disproportionately negative).  Showing the Board this link has facilitated a discussion about how the foundation should respond.
  • In one foundation, part of the process of implementing the outcome of its equity audit has raised issues about the culture of the organisation and how to get the balance right in creating safety for differing perspectives to be voiced and explored whilst being as inclusive and non-judgemental as possible. 
  • Two CEOs have initiated contact with CEOs in other foundations and organisations in their respective “sub-sectors”, to discuss how DEI and racial justice relate to their specific context.
  • As a place-based funder, one CEO sees part of their role as brokering connections and the creation of actions on racial justice within the locality, rather than being responsible for producing solutions.  Within a locality, it is possible to see oneself and one’s organisation as part of a defined system.
  • As individuals, and not in our role as CEO, we each may want to comment on or advocate for racial justice issues – eg through social media.  We need to think about how best to separate ourselves from our organisations when doing so to give us freedom to speak, although it may still come with risks.


  • As CEOs, who are we accountable to on racial justice – internally and externally?
  • Charitable foundations are some of the least accountable organisations in existence.  There is a tension between the main formal accountability we have to the Charity Commission and the accountabilities that we may want to build to communities of colour. 
  • Some foundations are researching their history and their potential links to the proceeds of slavery, colonialism and apartheid.  This includes assessing how the foundation should respond to that history.
  • One foundation’s board has just decided to devolve 75% of its grantmaking to its grants sub-committees which have external co-optees – including Black People and other People of Colour.  This has diversified the profile of those making grants decisions and represents a significant shift in power away from the Board and to people with connections to the communities being impacted by the grantmaking.
  • Another foundation is completing a new recruitment process, providing 4 people (instead of the 2 originally planned) with the opportunity to shadow one of the foundation’s trustees in order to gain skills and experience of charity governance and grantmaking.  3 of those appointed are People of Colour.  The foundation is likely to make this shadowing an ongoing part of its governance “pipeline”, and it also fits with the foundation’s mission.  It has also recently recruited 2 new Board members and they are both from minority ethnic backgrounds which has helped to focus some of the foundation’s internal conversations on DEI. 

4. Other resources/ideas:

One member of the group is part of the Losing Control network which has a separate network for funders (not visible on the LC website) which has recently decided that its focus for the next period will be on the question of accountability. 

Action:  She will circulate details of the network and its next meeting when they have been fixed – probably not for a couple of months. 

One member is looking at the possibility of using Unconscious Bias as a way to explore racial justice with her staff team and trustees and wondered whether the group had any experiences of this.  Another member had used Fearless Futures twice.  He would recommend them for a half day introductory session.

One member suggested we invite Malcolm John from Action for Trustee Racial Diversity to attend a future meeting.  The group felt it would be helpful to ask Malcolm to come to the next meeting specifically to tell us about the challenges People of Colour face as trustees, and what responsibility CEOs have to support People of Colour who join boards, and to provide challenge to the group.

Action:  He will speak to Malcolm and confirm the date of the next meeting with the group.

5. Next meeting:

The date of the next meeting was set for Friday 14th May from 1.30pm to 3pm.

Paul agreed to lead the next session and Joe will take notes.

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