Photo of Saba Shafi

As part of our series of interviews with charity leaders doing amazing work with digital during COVID-19 we spoke to Saba Shafi, MD at Advocacy Academy, Founding Organiser at #CharitySoWhite and Founder of a Bossing It, a digital network for womxn of colour in impact leadership. 

1. Diversity is a hot topic in the sector at the moment. Do you think that charities are beginning to move the dial on this issue?

This is a great question and a hard question! Do I think that charities have begun to think about the real challenges around diversity in the sector? Yes. Do I think that this means that the dial is moving on the issue? Maybe. This is not the first time that the sector has faced a reckoning with its shortcomings. Some have genuinely moved us forward and some have tipped us forward for an instant and we’ve rocked back again.

As a sector, good intentions and big hearts have blinded us from taking a hard look at the impact we are and aren’t having in the world. I joined this sector because I wanted to end the injustices I was seeing in the world, but after decades of this work, the charity sector has barely made a dent. Something isn’t working. We are too focused on short-term solutions, and supporting those who have already been harmed, rather than taking aim at the root causes of inequality. Until we do so meaningfully, not only will our work not be over, but we will see increasing demand for it.

When it comes to diversity and social equity, the same narrative plays out. In fact, the charity sector has been one of the biggest culprits perpetuating the same stereotypes we now want to tackle ourselves. Using racial diversity as an example – the sector has raked in huge volumes of funding off the back of BAME stereotypes which portray minorities here and abroad as helpless and without agency, and we have done so without asking our donors to interrogate why this inequality might exist in the first place. When we see BAME people in our workplaces we are fighting the stereotypes we have ourselves created and reinforced. We are part of the problem.

Until conversations around diversity face our structural complicity we will always fall short and the dial, even it moves forward, will always be at risk of slipping back. I have seen too many charities frame discussions around diversity as a “PR issue” or an “HR issue”. It is neither of these. It is a fundamental assessment of our worth and impact as a sector. We are always too ready to give ourselves a pat on the back for the effort and the intention. The truth is that real change will take time and will require us to hold ourselves accountable to tangible results. It’s way too early for most organisations to have realised anything. Let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard and dig in deep for the long fight. We can do this but this is only the beginning!

2. Tell us about your Bossing It network and why you set it up

Bossing It is a network for Womxn of Colour in Impact Leadership. The charity sector in the UK has fallen behind other sectors in terms of racial diversity and at the level of leadership that gap gets wider. WOC face a unique set of challenges in this space and the experience can be exhausting and isolating. Bossing It is a shared space for us to be vulnerable, to share opportunities, and to help each other succeed.

The idea for the network started with a conversation I was having with one of our Trustees at The Advocacy Academy – Shivani Smith. I had just stepped into the role of Acting CEO of The Advocacy Academy (two weeks before lockdown!), and was quickly realising that as someone relatively new to the sector, I didn’t have enough people in my close friendships and networks with shared experiences. I wasn’t looking for advice necessarily, but rather solidarity and frankly people who could understand the challenges I was facing who I could blow off some steam with. My initial plan was to find a group of womxn who would be interested in a regular dinner group and so I put out a call on Twitter to see if there was interest. I was blown away when I woke up the next day to over 100 DMs in my inbox.

In our first meeting over Zoom we had 78 people dialling in from across the world. There was no real agenda – I was frantically putting people into breakout rooms – but the magic was there. There were tears and laughter and I think we all felt a real lightening of the load. With each subsequent hangout I or some of the other members have added a chunk of infrastructure that makes the next one easier. I think it’s important that all members feel like they can create their own space within the broader network, whether that’s launching a book club or hosting a mini conference on governance as a WOC. We’re growing slowly but surely!

Sign up to Bossing It here!

3. There are a number of exciting online movements in the sector right now, from #CharitySoWhite to the recent Show the Salary initiative. What would you advise anyone looking to start a digital campaign to improve diversity across the sector?

The biggest piece of advice I would give is that no campaign survives exclusively online! #CharitySoWhite has maintained its momentum because our digital launch and emphasis on Twitter specifically was a strategic choice. We launched on Twitter because it is such an important space for charities and those who work in them, and we wanted charities to take notice. Behind the Twitter handle we’ve organised individuals across BAME networks, built culture and absorption pathways into our movement and grown relationships across the sector. We would be the first to admit that there have been times over the past year where we have been more reactive than we would have wanted, but we have always been purposeful in our actions. Any digital campaign must have roots that extend beyond the social. It’s an opportunity to improve your reach but it must be the tip of the iceberg.

4. Bossing It is a great online forum for WoC in the sector. You have obviously given lots of thought as to how to make it a safe space where people are comfortable opening up. How did you do this?

I spend a lot of time thinking about culture, how it’s created and how it’s reinforced, so really appreciate this question! A lot of key tenets of Bossing It have come from the way I and others have thought about creating spaces at #CharitySoWhite. At their core is a focus on a brave space rather than a safe space. The concept of a brave space for me comes from the beautiful poem by Micky ScottBey Jones below.


Together we will create brave space
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space”
We exist in the real world
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.
In this space
We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,
We call each other to more truth and love
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be
It will be our brave space together,
We will work on it side by side.

For me the ease and that comfort which allows people to open up comes from a well defined set of principles which members of Bossing It are asked to sign up to at the beginning of each session and in our private networking group. It’s important to return to these regularly, but at the end of the day, the feel of these spaces comes from allowing others to help you reinforce them. Once you make it ok to jump in then others eventually follow. We’ve asked everyone to introduce themselves and share something personal in our Slack. We champion each other unabashedly and set the tone of our sessions early by being purposefully warm, irreverent and relaxed. Then it’s about time. Some people need a little bit more time to warm up but 90 minutes in with some smaller groups in the mix, the atmosphere inevitably will start to relax.

5. In 2 years’ time how would you like charities to have increased diversity? Can digital play a role in this?

If the sector is going to do this right, it will take at least two years before we see tangible results play out. To improve diversity charities need to understand and assess their priorities around the frameworks of oppression that have led to a lack of diversity in the first place. Using the four Is of oppression as a framework I would like to see charities having made material progress in tackling the underlying mechanisms.

Ideological: Every form of oppression stems from an ideological framework that at its simplest says that one group is better than another. To combat this, charities must match ideology with ideology. They must centre at the heart of their mission, values, and theory of change a desire to combat the damaging ideology in the world. It isn’t enough to say you are an inclusive organisation – how is tackling sexism, racism, ableism, classism, transphobia and other oppressions central to your work? I would love to see more charities take this first but important step over the next few years.

Institutional: The way institutions and structures reinforce an ideology. What are the structural barriers that prevent diverse identities from accessing your space? Is your office accessible? What support do you provide women to adopt or foster rather than have children of their own? Are you releasing salary data? Have you checked who keeps getting chosen for leadership programmes? What processes do you have to address microaggressions in the workplace? You can’t wish upon a star for more diversity. I want to see more charities investing time and money into restructuring their internal and external policies and practices.

Interpersonal: The violence perpetuated based on ideology at the individual level is what we are most familiar with and also the easiest to miss if you lack literacy in the ways this manifests. I would love to see charities go beyond D&I training for staff and begin developing and investing in tailored management training so that leaders across an organisation are able to hold themselves and their teams to account.

Internalised: When oppression ideology is internalised by communities who are harmed. This is a great deal more addressable than it may first seem. Charities must continue to centre equity rather than equality. From recollection, Google has long been interviewing men and women differently, recognising that on average men will rate their capabilities higher than women in an interview. Recognising that men will calibrate themselves differently to women allows a fairer, more equitable process.

Follow Saba on Twitter.