This new blog has been written ‘in conversation’ with Stephen Nicol and James Alcock.

You will have seen last month that we were delighted to announce the continuing support of Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. Our long-term partners are backing Plunkett’s strategy of mobilising the community business movement to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in the countryside. There is so much already happening and we, as a team are passionate about this renewed partnership and, alongside our stated ambition to grow the sector by 20% by 2026, look forward to seeing our sector’s impact continue to grow.

To continue communicating what “EDI” means in the context of our work we have caught up with our Chair, Stephen Nicol and Chief Executive, James Alcock for this new blog post. They have put into their own words what this important stream of work means to them, for us as an organisation and the wider sector.

SN: Firstly, can I start by saying that I am so glad that we are having this conversation! I know that our board of Trustees shares the strong interest of the staff team in making sure that Plunkett is clearly setting out our ambition for EDI in respect of our work. Having the support of Esmée Fairbairn Foundation is fantastic but more than that it is the right thing to be doing.

In answer to the question, I want to say that EDI is not, and must not become some form of ‘tick box’ exercise. It is about making all people feel comfortable, valued, and welcome in an organisation, when using a service or being part of a community.

JA: I think that last point hits the nail on the head for me. To me, EDI is about making everyone welcome, giving everyone a chance to be themselves, and ensuring there are no barriers to people’s participation and progression. The ‘E’ ‘D’ and ‘I’ go together, and to quote one of our speakers at our national conference in June – if you get the Inclusion element right, Equity and Diversity will follow.

SN: Can I just add, debates about EDI can sometimes disappear down unhelpful rabbit holes and get polarised, but taking a step back, its really, I think, about commonsense decency and humanity.

JA: I’ll go first with this one. When we first encountered the term EDI in the context of our work, it was usually in conversation with our funders and sector partners and rooted very much in the context of racial marginalisation and ethnic disparities. Whilst such issues are priorities, and ones we’d like to address, the reality is that on some measures the white ethnic group account for 96.8% of the rural population of England compared with 81.7% in urban areas. Therefore, whilst race is still important in rural areas, we need to be mindful of other areas of exclusion and injustice too.

SN: Society has and is changing in so many ways. So, this means the conversation about EDI needs to move on. And this applies as much to rural communities as elsewhere.

To expand on James’s points, I want to flag two examples:

First, the ethnic composition of the UK’s population has changed markedly in recent decades. Just take the last 10 years between the 2011 and 2021 Censuses. I recently looked the stats for the 2021 Census and it’s really interesting.

Although there are large variations between our urban and rural areas, all our rural areas have seen significant shifts and are becoming more diverse in the sense of race.

Also, across largely or mainly rural areas in England around 4% or 1 in 25 of the population are now either of mixed race or a non-white ethnicity. That’s at least one child in every school class on average.


Second, more recently the cost-of-living crisis has exacerbated rural poverty and really squeezed the incomes of many. That means there is a real danger that many residents living in rural areas are not included due to incomes and poverty.

JA: Thanks Stephen, those are some helpful insights. Following on from my earlier point though, although we originally felt helpless on having any sort of impact in this area, once we began the conversation (internally and with partners), we reflected how intrinsically inclusive the rural community business network already is and how each business is doing their utmost to reach and welcome all parts of their local community.

We considered this the same for Plunkett too, and especially in comparison to other organisations our staff had worked for, they commented on how welcoming Plunkett was, how accommodating we were of individual health needs or caring responsibilities, and that no barriers existed for them to join the organisation or progress their careers and confidence whilst they are with us.

In our conversations we’ve acknowledged that such ‘inclusivity’ across our sector has led to diversity within the individual community businesses that we represent; in terms of age, gender, sexuality, physical ability, health, and financial background – none of which comes across in a photograph of course! But we realised that we as a membership body, representing a movement, we were failing to tell this story of inclusion and of diversity which includes ‘protected characteristics’ but also goes far beyond. In a rural context this is even more important in our view, as disadvantage and exclusion are much more likely to be hidden.

SN: You’re absolutely right, James and can I just add that the changes I talked about can become opportunities for our sector too.

As the composition of residents, in our villages and smaller towns changes, including those who use community business services and/or are potential volunteers and employees etc., there is a chance for rural communities and those running community businesses to really embrace the idea of being inclusive – in other words following that ancient tradition of hospitality in its very deepest sense. This can help expand the volunteer pool (one of the biggest challenges at the moment), the staff pool and the pool of potential customers – good for the business and good for the community.

JA: Yes – we have spoken a lot about EDI, and these discussions will be ongoing.


Anyway, what have we done to date? Well, following conversations with our Trustees, staff and members and an external review, we have now introduced a number of improvements to our HR and recruitment processes making it is more accessible and equitable to a wider range of candidates; we’ve extended our flexible working arrangements to accommodate new and existing staff with work/life balance and caring responsibilities; we’ve extended our staff training on issues such as domestic abuse and the menopause; and introduced other initiatives such as a staff-led forum, staff away days and a staff garden – all of which promote staff participation with each other and empower them to have a say in how Plunkett operates for the benefit of our members, ourselves and wider society.

SN:  We have prioritised getting our own house in order first, as well as speaking to community businesses too.

Our feeling has always been, that if we want to be confident about our role in respect of promoting EDI in every aspect of our work then we need everyone involved with Plunkett to understand the importance of this work and what their role is too.

SN: I think the term you used earlier, was ‘mobilising the network’ – we need to work with community businesses, UK-wide in respect of how they are tackling inclusivity in their community. We need to learn from what others are doing and help more to follow suit. Education is going be a key activity in all of this, and I am keen that we (Plunkett) demonstrate leadership through sharing stories and good practice of how this works and why it makes sense.

A real strength within our movement is peer to peer learning, we must harness their collective knowledge as part of this work.

JA: We have (in the background) already been working hard on improving our service offering to ensure that it is accessible to a wider range of communities, especially those in areas of deprivation and where the community business model is lesser known. As part of this work, we are due to relaunch our community business service in September, more on that at our AGM on Wednesday, and central to this is we have reduced a number of barriers which might have prevented communities from contacting us in the past, and which re-positions our support to assist community businesses to become more innovative, impactful, and inclusive.

One element of this which we are yet to put into place is the creation of partnerships with other organisations (charities, businesses, agencies, individuals) who can assist community businesses to work directly with people who might currently feel excluded from their local community or from the countryside altogether. For example, we have an ambition to work with national and local partners who can broker opportunities for employment, training, and volunteering especially for people who are excluded from the labour market – for example people with disabilities, ex-offenders, people who are bereaved, or people lacking skills and confidence. Additionally, we are looking for partners who can offer support and training to our members on issues such as domestic violence, financial exclusion, and mental health.

This is just the beginning of our journey – we will continue to listen, review, and take action.

SN: Coming back to your question of what does good look like, for me, it will be a lively exchange of experiences and good practice across our community business members and all rural communities having spaces that are inclusive and open to all – and fortunately that is part of our mission statement!

JA: I don’t think we are starting from a particularly bad position, but ‘good’ for me will be when we can talk about EDI with greater confidence and have more success stories to point towards where Plunkett has been able to make a difference.

SN: Thankfully no, Horace Plunkett appears to have made his fortune ranching in the west of the United States before he founded Plunkett Foundation with his original endowment of £5,000 in 1919. Although we can never be totally sure what he got up to there. I’d like to think, knowing what I do about our founder, that he treated all with respect and dignity.


JA: Given our founder, Sir Horace Plunkett was born into an Anglo-Irish landowning family during the Irish Potato famine, and making his own fortune cattle ranching in what was a British Colony, this is a good question. Sir Horace Plunkett said himself that his biggest mistake had been to be born in England – which made him feel never fully accepted by the Irish people. However, everything we know about Horace suggests his intentions were honourable.

As soon as he left education, his first endeavour was to establish a community-owned village store on his family estate – the very first co-operative in Ireland – and owned by estate workers, giving them control as to where their goods came from and setting them at fair prices. This was revolutionary in many ways, especially given the reputation of the Irish shopkeepers at that time. In fact, everything he did was about empowering local people to take control of the assets and services that they valued and to protect the livelihoods and wellbeing of people living and working in the countryside.

It is also worth pointing out that Plunkett Foundation is not a wealthy heavily endowed charity. Sir Horace endowed the Foundation with a total of £5,000, topped up with a further £5,000 on his death. Whilst a considerable sum in 1919 – this was well and truly spent several years ago. However, his real legacy was the values we now hold dear – which is to create thriving, resilient, and inclusive rural communities through the creation of community owned businesses.

Thank you both so much for your time and contributions.

I hope that this blog shows how as part of our strategic vision for resilient, thriving, and inclusive rural communities throughout the UK, Plunkett is committed to the application of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in everything we do. It is central to our work, and we believe that EDI is not just something we ought to do but rather it is something we must all take responsibility for.

We look forward to continuing the many conversations with you all as part of this journey and of course would welcome any reflections you have on this post today. Please feel free to get in touch with us via and we will continue sharing our progress with you in future.

Join the movement today!

Membership is the cornerstone of our work at the Plunkett Foundation. The strength of our network of community business members, partners and supporters cannot be underestimated – without our members, we would not be able to represent the interests of rural communities and champion community ownership across the UK with the media, funders, policy makers, and other stakeholders.

Become a Plunkett Member today and help us to support even more community businesses across the UK. Find out more via this link.

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