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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

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Safeguarding the future of international development

This opinion piece is over 3 years old

Margaret Lynch advocates robust governance to rebuild public confidence

It is turning out to be an “annus horribilis” for three big beasts of the UK charity world: Amnesty International, Oxfam and Save the Children.

Oxfam have been severely criticised by the Charity Commission following an investigation into their handling of allegations of serious sexual misconduct by senior staff in Haiti.
Save the Children are currently under investigation, the Charity Commission’s report is expected any day now, into the organisation’s failure to deal appropriately with sexual harassment claims against Brendan Cox, Director of Policy and Advocacy.

A report commissioned by Amnesty after two employees died by suicide last year found 39% of staff reported that they had developed mental or physical health problems as a result of working for the human rights charity. More recently Amnesty has announced 100 staff redundancies as part of a restructuring exercise needed to close a £17m budget deficit.

Questions are bound to be asked why Amnesty is paying what have been described as “generous” severance payments to the 5 members of the Senior Leadership team who presided over this mixed grill of disasters – after they had received their offers of resignation.!

The issues which have been exposed in these three formerly extremely well-regarded charities are remarkably similar. Crucially a failure of the governing bodies to ensure that there were sufficiently robust systems in place for managing risk, investigating and reporting on serious breaches of conduct and ensuring that whistle blowers concerns were appropriately handled. In Oxfam and Save the Children the concerns focussed around the sexual misconduct and abuse of power of senior members of staff. In all three organisations there appears to have been a huge yawning gap between acceptable and actual culture, conduct and behaviours promoted and exhibited by senior leaders and managers.

Helen Stephenson, Chief Executive of the Charity Commission, said of Oxfam’s leadership that it “may have been well-intentioned. But our report demonstrates that good intentions have limited value when they are not matched with resources, robust systems and processes that are implemented on the ground, and more importantly, an organisational culture that prioritises keeping people safe”. In all probability, this statement applies not just to the three organisations currently finding their feet held to the fire – but to many others across the Third Sector.

If those involved in the governance, leadership and management of the charity do not translate the organisation’s values into work practices – then trouble will follow. Robust processes and procedures are only robust if the people operating them stand behind the values they exist to support. If culture and conduct are at variance from the organisation’s stated mission and values, then staff, service users and others will have no confidence that their concerns – or reports of wrongdoing will be addressed. This is how massive reputational risk opens up for well-meaning organisations.

How do you protect your organisation from reputational risk caused by unacceptable conduct to colleagues and service users?

It is not enough to have a Respect in the Workplace, Whistleblowing or Safeguarding policies in your Governance and Staff Handbooks. Measures need to be put in place to check and see how they are operating, to report on what happens when they are breached, and to verify that the organisations procedures around investigation and reporting are being followed. This is especially important when it comes to allegations concerning senior staff.

Regular staff surveys which ask some searching questions around whether staff see Codes of Conduct being modelled by Senior Staff and Managers need to be undertaken. Trade Unions need to be involved in supporting staff to report problems and concerns around behaviours in the workplace. Service Users need to be listened to – regularly. Above all – whistle blowers need to be reassured that their concerns will be properly investigated. Above all Trustees should ensure that there are a range of ways in which they can measure well-being across the organisation.

Scotland’s Third Sector Governance Forum has developed a Governance Code for the Third Sector which centres around 5 core principles: Organisational Purpose, Leadership, Board Behaviour, Control and Effectiveness. It requires Trustees to ensure that everyone in the organisation behaves with integrity and demonstrates a strong commitment to ethical values. The importance of comprehensive stakeholder engagement and openness coupled with robust processes for transparency, reporting and audit are underscored.

As Baroness Stowell, Chair of the Charity Commission said “Ultimately being a charity is more than just about what you do, it is also about the way in which you do it."

Margaret Lynch is a consultant for the third sector. She was previously chief executive of Citizens Advice Scotland



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