How ActionAid put its principles into practice

ActionAid has always been emotionally committed to diversity. It was just, at times, rather difficult to see it in practice, either from the outside looking in or from the inside, looking around. Ken Burnett reflects on how the charity made the changes needed

Back in 1977, when I started with the charity as UK director, diversity was a concept barely understood. ActionAid was very small and its board members were all relatively rich white men from the south of England – all personal appointees of the charity’s founder, Cecil Jackson Cole (mostly they worked for CJC’s estate agency firm). Diverse, we were not. But the absence went largely unnoticed.

ActionAid’s first international meeting took place at my house in North London in spring of 1982. It was the first time ever that the senior managers of the organisation had assembled in one place. As we, the 11 directors of the charity, sat down to dinner we realised that, like the trustees, we were all British (even the country programme directors – it was policy, back then) and all comparatively rich white men. From that moment we vowed to change.

The calamity of no diversity

Around the late 1970s/ early 1980s an ActionAid board meeting demonstrates how imperfectly our unrepresentative board was functioning at the time. This meeting was important for ActionAid’s management because the board was being asked to approve a new programme in Burundi, a volatile and difficult place to work. We needn’t have worried; with the exception of one or two of the better-informed trustees already on our side, no one on the board had even the slightest idea where Burundi is, so the proposal was nodded through unopposed inside two minutes. On the same agenda was an item relating to the proposed new Grimsby gift shop. Now everyone on the board had been to Grimsby and most had strong views as to whether the north side of the High Street was better for shopping than the south side, so the board debated this choice back and forth for more than 20 minutes before the management got their way in the end.

Over the years (I left the ActionAid staff in 1983 but returned 12 years later in a voluntary capacity, as a trustee) some modest progress was made. The senior management team under CEO Roland (Rip) Hodson moved towards gender balance and throughout the organisation a good picture of diversity began to emerge. Some eminent women joined the board, making a massive difference. But the board chair and CEO remained resolutely white and male.


Serious change took hold in 1998 when Salil Shetty, from India, was promoted to be CEO. Salil brought with him a dedication to radical change, particularly his passion to see ActionAid commit to a becoming a genuinely international organisation in all its aspects within five years of taking up his appointment. This swiftly led to a complete restructuring of the board, the move to a unified federal structure, creation of national boards for all affiliates and programme countries and a commitment to gender equity and diversity at all levels throughout the organisation.

ActionAid’s strategy planning meeting in Bangkok in 2004 provided a stark contrast to that first international meeting in London back in 1982. This time there were 140 participants from 40 countries, 50 per cent were women, mostly Africans and Asians and there was clearly, evidently a much higher level of debate. Something significant had changed. ActionAid had made sure it did. My successor as board chair in 2003 was a Ugandan woman, Noreen Kaleeba, and a brilliant, charismatic leader and unifier she proved to be.

ActionAid now works in more than 50 countries around the world, from Afghanistan and Brazil to Zambia and Zimbabwe. It was the first major international charity to shift its international headquarters from a base in the affluent North – London, to a capital in the global South – Johannesburg. The first international chair of trustees elected under the new process was an African woman; the international chief executive who followed Salil was an agriculturalist from Nepal. Seated around ActionAid’s top governance table now you’ll find representatives from national boards that ActionAid has created and is supporting in Malawi, Guatemala, India, Sierra Leone, Greece, Ghana, Denmark, USA, Australia, Uganda, Kenya, the UK and others.

In many countries, the new ActionAid boards have been able to secure top brains and experienced campaigners for change of a quality that would have been hard to find and attract if we’d only been fishing in British local waters. These new, developing trustees include many academics, politicians, business leaders, legal specialists and opinion formers.

Diversity brings better decisions by definition. In each country, ActionAid’s new leaders know where the poverty is and what’s causing it, because they come from it and see it in their daily lives. It also brings credibility and acceptance too, as individual national ActionAids around the world are increasingly seen wherever they work as self-regulating independent members of a southern-led international family, not as agents of British or American influence. In today’s volatile international environment, this makes a huge difference.

By building exemplary boards at the country level, ActionAid is sending a strong, consistent message to the people and political leaders of each country where it works – a message that proclaims the importance of solid, just and equitable governance. And the system will train and develop new generations of men and women from all backgrounds, each well versed in and able to recognise good governance and what it can achieve, when it’s permitted to flourish.

Ken Burnett is an author, lecturer and consultant on fundraising, marketing and communications for nonprofit organisations worldwide.