Supporting a more diverse, equitable and inclusive environment sector


A new report by Hybrid Consulting and sam-culture reviews activity to address the lack of diversity in the environment sector. Simon Wightman, Esmée's Funding Manager Lead for Our Natural World, shares his reflections on the findings and Esmée's role.

Why we commissioned the research

At Esmée, our aims to improve our natural world, secure a fairer future, and strengthen the bonds in communities across the UK are interdependent. Progress in one depends on progress in the others. Those with the least power and privilege are the first to be affected by reduced availability and affordability of nutritious food, an increase in harmful flooding and dangerous temperatures, and are least likely to be able to access natural green and blue spaces and the mental and physical benefits that brings. They are also underrepresented in the environment sector, with people from communities experiencing racial inequity, who are economically or educationally disadvantaged, or who have a disability, facing significant barriers to entering and progressing within the sector. For us to address the nature and climate crises, we need to ensure that everyone can contribute to solutions and share the rewards.

I got my first paid work in the environment sector back in 2000, finishing university and travelling the country, alternating short-term contracts surveying wildlife with stints volunteering on nature reserves. Since then, I have had the privilege of working with passionate and knowledgeable people, who are trying as hard as they can to arrest the decline in nature. If I reflect on this with a bit of sadness, it isn’t just because we have not yet succeeded in arresting the decline, it is a feeling that we could have achieved more if we had been part of a vibrant and inclusive movement that welcomed everybody and valued the new and unexplored ideas that come from a diverse workforce.

As one of the largest independent foundations funding the environment sector, we have a responsibility to reflect on our own practice and to ensure that we are supporting those we work with. We started our journey in 2020 and describe our early actions in a blog here.

In 2023, we commissioned Hybrid Consulting to undertake research with mainstream environment charities, grassroots activists and founders, and with people with lived experience of working in the sector. We wanted to understand what organisations were doing, where they were turning to for advice, and how we could improve our work to improve diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

What the findings reveal

1. Those with the best understanding of the problem need to shape the solutions

Organisations are not paying enough attention to the lived experience of people from underrepresented communities, especially those who are already part of the workforce, and are therefore missing the opportunity to use that knowledge to improve their practice.

Environment organisations highlight the need for collective action to protect the environment, and there is rightly an increasing focus on the disproportionate impact environmental degradation has and will continue to have on some parts of the world and on the poorest and most marginalised people everywhere, but slow progress on DEI leaves many people feeling excluded and critically misses the opportunity for solutions to be shaped by those with the best understanding of the problem.

2. The role of grassroots and community-led initiatives

Community-led initiatives play a valuable role in enabling underrepresented communities to claim their space in the sector. The mainstream environment sector needs to change, but those with transformative ideas should not have to wait for that to happen.

3. Better sharing of knowledge and resources

Several contributors, especially those working for small charities, raised the need for knowledge sharing, resources, and networks. Participants also called for a greater focus on evaluation, so that understanding how approaches to DEI have changed organisational culture, behaviour, governance, and decision-making can be used to improve wider practice.

4. Facilitating career progression and leadership development

Important initiatives like Race for Nature’s Recovery and New to Nature have provided paid entry-level posts for people from underrepresented communities to work in the sector, but little attention has been placed on those already employed, so that they are better supported and those who want to can progress into leadership roles.

In a survey of 2004 people carried out by Wildlife and Countryside Link to inform its ‘Route Map to Greater Ethnic Diversity’, all the Black, Asian and minority ethnic participants said that there was racism in the sector. A small number gave examples of overt racism, but most were able to give examples arising from unconscious bias and covert racism. Clearly, addressing barriers to accessing jobs is important but it is not enough if people already working in the sector are not finding it a welcoming and supportive place, where their ideas are valued and acted on and where the opportunity to progress is equitable. This isn’t just about fairness, it is critical in building a movement that values new ideas, champions diverse voices, and can rise to the challenges ahead.

Esmée’s role and next steps

Hopefully, we are already making progress in some of these areas. Our New Connections programme accepts that our funding practice has placed barriers on organisations doing great work and is exploring ways in which we can address that.

We are supporting several networks and initiatives across the sector that are taking action to improve DEI. For instance, as well as the Route Map Towards Greater Ethnic Diversity, we have worked with Ocean and Coastal Futures to understand the work needed to address the lack of diversity in the marine and coastal sector. We are supporting SOS-UK in its leadership on the RACE (Racial Action for the Climate Emergency) Report with multi-year funding to ensure that greater transparency can be a catalyst for action to improve DEI. It recently published its second annual report, based on data from over 140 environment organisations and funders, including Esmée.

We are using Hybrid and sam-culture's Report and our conversations with the organisations we work with to identify thematic areas that need more focus. One emerging theme is support for future leaders from underserved and underrepresented backgrounds already working in the sector and we will be working with partners to help address this need.

And we’re being more proactive in reaching out and supporting organisations that centre the voices of people from communities underrepresented in the sector, such as All The Elements and the Scottish Ethnic Minority Environmental Network. As with our New Connections programme, we want to work closely with them to understand what we can do to improve our support.

Our support

Just as Esmée is on a journey to improve DEI within our own organisation, we understand that the organisations we work with are at different stages in their journey and commit to supporting them in any way we can. We appreciate that what good looks like will not always be the same. However, we expect the organisations we fund to have reflected on what DEI means to them and how they will develop their practice. We believe transparency is an important first step and will expect organisations to engage with initiatives like the RACE Report.

We want to work with organisations who are committed to accelerating the transition to a more inclusive movement. If the senior leadership team of an organisation has not thought about this aspect of its work, or we feel that making progress on DEI is seen as the responsibility of one individual, rather than a collective commitment to assess the culture, behaviour, and governance of an organisation, then we are likely to take the view that we are not the right funder.

We know there is much more for us to do and welcome feedback on our work. We’re grateful to Hybrid Consulting and sam-culture on this important piece of work and to everyone who generously shared their experiences and insight.

We will be learning from others and sharing more about our commitment over the coming months.

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