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Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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After Oxfam: safeguarding and the lessons for the sector in Scotland

This opinion piece is almost 5 years old

Oxfam Haiti report contains lessons for all charities

This week the Charity Commission in England and Wales published its reportinto the safeguarding failures at Oxfam, which has determined to learn from past mistakes and implement the commission’s recommendations.

The report should be vital reading for any trustee as it contains lessons for all charities to ensure a safe environment for anyone who comes into contact with their organisation.

Safeguarding is not just a concern for the international aid sector, it affects all charities. Public trust is fragile and though the vast majority of voluntary organisations are well run, we cannot afford to be complacent. So, what can we do to ensure that we all build a culture within our organisations to keep people safe?

Good governance is the place to start. Safeguarding is about more than policies and procedures, it’s about building the right culture to prevent abuse in the first place, and that starts with strong leadership from the board and good governance.

Tracey Bird

Safeguarding failures have had a devastating impact on beneficiaries, employees and supporters

Tracey Bird

The Scottish Governance Code for the Third Sector sets out five fundamental principles to help guide trustees to do the right thing, in the right way, and every one of the principles can help you build a culture to keep people safe. Here’s how:

Organisational purpose

The Charity Commission concluded that “no charity is more important than the people it serves or the mission it pursues”, something that all trustees should place front and centre in every decision they make. The Scottish Governance Code’s principle that ‘a well-run board is clear about the purpose and values of the organisation and how it will achieve its aims’ provides a solid base for any safeguarding policy which should be underpinned by an organisational wide commitment to your mission, values and objectives.


Safeguarding is as much about culture as it is about policies and procedures, and it’s up to the board to embed an organisational culture based on mission and values. To do this they need, both individually and collectively, to set the tone through their leadership, behaviour and performance to ensure a safe environment that enables anyone to report concerns, and ensure those concerns are dealt with appropriately.

Board behaviour

The commission concluded that Oxfam’s well-intentioned leadership had “limited value” when not matched with resources, policies and procedures, and a culture that prioritised keeping people safe. Trustees have to be clear about who their beneficiaries are, and be transparent, open and accountable about how they govern and the decisions they make. They should ensure their organisation has an easily accessible whistleblowing policy, and handle complaints transparently, constructively and impartially.


The Scottish Governance Code’s principle of control states that “a well-run board will develop and implement appropriate controls to direct and oversee progress and performance of the organisation”. This means maintaining and regularly reviewing safeguarding policies and procedures, and understanding and analysing your internal and external operating environments to create effective strategies and systems for risk management.


Managing risk and regular reviews of their performance and skills. If you don’t have the knowledge to ensure your safeguarding is up to scratch, then you need to build capacity with ongoing support and training.

We’ve seen how safeguarding failures have had a devastating impact on beneficiaries, employees and supporters, damaging the reputation not only of individual organisations, but that of the wider sector. That’s why we have to be proactive and make safeguarding an essential part of good governance.

There are lots of resourcesout there to help you create a safer environment in your organisation, including OSCRguidance and the Scottish International Development Alliance websitewhere you will find the Safer for All package that has resources, tools and templates that you can use.

Tracey Bird is an information officer at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.



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