Close Search

Becoming anti-racist: what businesses can learn from Wellcome

12 October 2022 at 9:05 pm
Danielle Kutchel
Australian for-purpose organisations can learn a lot from a racism crisis at the world’s third largest charitable foundation.

Danielle Kutchel | 12 October 2022 at 9:05 pm


Becoming anti-racist: what businesses can learn from Wellcome
12 October 2022 at 9:05 pm

Australian for-purpose organisations hav much to learn from a racism crisis at the world’s third largest charitable foundation.

In 2020, charitable foundation Wellcome made a public announcement: it acknowledged that it had perpetuated racism within its organisation, and it pledged to do something about it.

Rather than just pledging to not be racist, Wellcome went a step further and promised to become anti-racist, with a swathe of actions including the creation of anti-racist principles and an anti-racist toolkit, anti-racism training for staff, and an external evaluation of its progress on the issue.

Now, two years on, the evaluation is in and its verdict is known: “Wellcome is still an institutionally racist organisation”.

As the foundation prepares to dig deeper into its anti-racism mission, an Australian anti-racism consultant believes there are lessons to be learned from Wellcome’s journey so far.

The power of going public

For Sonia Sofat, director at anti-racism consultancy and training provider Hue, Wellcome’s public commitment to anti-racism is the “first step” on the journey to accountability and action.

“That’s something that we don’t see many organisations do. Audits are usually quite private and internal,” she explained.

Sonia Safat, an Indian woman of colour, smiles at the camera. She has brown hair and is wearing a blue denim shirt.

Sonia Sofat

“I was pleasantly surprised that they had put it out there to share with the public, although there’s obviously a lot of work that they need to do. I don’t think organisations realise how much goodwill that can actually build and how meaningful an apology is if it’s also then backed up by action.”

The public announcement adds a layer of accountability and sets an example to other organisations on an issue that many would prefer to keep quiet.

“The more secretive and quiet things are, the less accountability there is, the less transparency there is and the more toxic these kinds of things can be within work culture,” she said.

What Wellcome found

The report into Wellcome’s progress found that:

  • Institutional racism still exists due to “cultural, structural and leadership deficits across the organisation”.
  • Wellcome has not made sufficient progress against undertakings made in June 2020 and is perpetuating systemic racism within the wider research sector.
  • A lack of diversity in senior leadership is hampering progress.
  • Staff have experienced discrimination and harassment.
  • Staff identifying as Black and people of colour are carrying the burden of creating change, with a heavy reliance on staff network groups.
  • An anti-racism toolkit and training have so far failed to have a positive impact.

Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome, said in a statement on Wellcome’s website that the organisation was determined to change its ways.

“Wellcome is still doing too little to use its power and influence to counter racism. We have fallen short of commitments made to colleagues and to the research community,” he said.

“I am sorry for the actions and inactions behind this, and the hurt and disappointment these have caused.

“It’s clear that unacceptable behaviour still exists at Wellcome. The leadership team, like so many of our colleagues at Wellcome, are determined to change this. We will do better.”

What Wellcome did next

In response to the evaluation, Wellcome doubled down on its pledge to become anti-racist.

It announced more anti-racism actions, including:

  • Positive action principles to be applied to Wellcome’s funding decision-making process to ensure that when applications are similar in merit, Wellcome will favour those which add to the diversity of the pool of people it supports. 
  • A dedicated funding stream for researchers who are Black and people of colour, targeted at the career stages where this will have the greatest benefits for diversity.
  • A new equity, diversity and inclusion role at executive level, reporting to the director, to lead Wellcome’s internal and external work on equity, diversity and inclusion, with a specific focus on anti-racism. 

“The question remaining for us is not whether we do this, but the details of how we do it,” Farrar said.

“We are now focusing on these implementation questions, engaging and listening to those with lived experience and to our partners in the sector as we do so. We recognise these measures will not be the only changes needed, but I hope they speak to Wellcome’s determination and renewed commitment to do better.”

Shifts in leadership

Sofat said Wellcome’s setbacks on its anti-racism journey were not necessarily unusual; it’s something she’s seen in other organisations as well.

Change, she said, can be difficult.

Critical to creating meaningful and lasting change is having employees and leaders who are able to accept and reflect on their own internalised racism and whiteness, she said.

That means some leaders may need to share, shift or give up power to make room for those who have the experience to lead an organisation to an anti-racism platform. And some organisations are not willing to take that step and actively shift power, because it might mean changing who is in the leadership team.

“Having this [change] informed by people who have lived experience of racism and other forms of oppression is a really key part of creating meaningful and long-lasting change,” Sofat said.

“That’s a really hard thing for a lot of leaders to hear and for them to even accept. And if they can’t accept it, then it’s just not possible for this kind of work to progress.”

There is a crucial difference, Sofat said, between not being racist and being actively anti-racist.

“[Anti-racism is] actually taking action and steps that are in line with shifting power, because racism is a lot about power and privilege, and really identifying those moments that people are shifting that power and… putting in practice those things,” she explained.

Being ready to shift power balances within an organisation is a sign of how committed an organisation is to being anti-racist, she added.

The reflection necessary in taking anti-racism measures can cause some discomfort — but it’s important not to look away at that point, and instead to lean in and listen to staff of colour and those with experiences of racism and oppression.

Beginning an anti-racism journey

Any organisation wanting to take an actively anti-racist stance needs to sit and reflect on its values before engaging in what can be a long and difficult process, Sofat said.

That’s not to say the action should be put off; rather, the sooner it’s done, the better for employees of colour.

“There’s not always quick fixes. It’s really about committing to a journey. It takes time for people to change. It takes time for organisations to change their work practices and to shift their culture to a culture of anti-racism as well,” Sofat explained.

“If [organisations] are willing to ask themselves the hard questions and make some tough decisions… then they definitely have the potential to achieve and to be an anti-racism organisation in the future. 

“It needs to be dealt with not just in a meaningful way, but a really timely way. And I think the risks associated with not dealing with racism in the workplace need to be taken more seriously by boards and by leaders, just like they take other types of discrimination seriously. It’s not okay for them to just kick the can down the road because it’s actually harming people’s lives.”

In an Australian context, organisations should start by acknowledging that they work on stolen land. They should also listen to staff of colour about their experiences and the harm they are experiencing, and create solutions to stop that from happening.

Organisations shouldn’t be afraid of asking for external help from consultants who can provide anti-racism training, evaluations and guidance. Paying lip-service to diversity and inclusion isn’t enough; multiple actions need to be taken to avoid being tokenistic, Sofat added.

This could mean an organisation evaluating its internal policies and practices at the same time as it considers who holds leadership positions within the company and even how much employees are paid.

Sofat has worked with a number of organisations whose leaders did not realise that staff of colour were being paid at the lowest levels and were in the most insecure roles.

Going into such depth avoids tokenism and creates meaningful change for staff of colour, she said.

“It is really important if organisations are doing this work that they tackle it from a range of different areas, from creating specialised roles to hiring people of colour and people with different intersectional experiences in senior leadership roles on the board, to actually reviewing their policies and processes to find the gaps and find what structures and policies exist that are inhibiting and creating harm,” she explained. 

“If [businesses] are actually able to do those things as well as providing staff with training and creating debrief spaces internally and setting goals and all of those things, if they are actually ticking a range of those boxes, then they’ve got a really good chance of being able to shift their culture and build an anti-racism organisation that really values anti-racism and that’s practising anti-racism principles every day.”

Danielle Kutchel  |  @ProBonoNews

Danielle is a journalist specialising in disability and CALD issues, and social justice reporting. Reach her on or on Twitter @D_Kutchel.


Get more stories like this



It's a P-squared year

Kristy Muir

Friday, 13th January 2023 at 6:50 pm

Relationships, trust, and community: the journey of a First Nations-led funder

Danielle Kutchel

Wednesday, 9th November 2022 at 10:54 am

AMP Foundation shifts for the future

Danielle Kutchel

Monday, 12th September 2022 at 12:07 pm

pba inverse logo
Subscribe Twitter Facebook