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The lessons for Oxfam and the wider sector

Karl Wilding, shortly to take over as chief executive of NCVO, reflects on the lessons of Oxfam, and talks about the importance of getting your safeguarding and governance right.


In June, the Charity Commission finally published its report into Oxfam, following last year’s allegations in The Times that its staff had used prostitutes in Haiti, and that the charity had not properly dealt with the safeguarding issues. I was inevitably drawn to the section on wider lessons for charities.

This is not primarily a set of lessons for finance departments, but there are significant implications for all charity leaders, and some areas where finance leaders may well find themselves taking the lead.

Here are my main lessons.

Good governance matters

As trustees, we have to make sure we understand the risks our charities face. The report says: “trustees are collectively responsible for their charity and ultimately accountable for everything done by charity.”

Safeguarding is the governance priority for charities.

That’s all charities. No ifs. No buts. NCVO will help on this, but it is absolutely essential that your charity has the right policies and processes and procedures in place. And that they are followed.

The fact it’s hard is no excuse

The next lesson is that just because your charity works in a difficult or contested area, that does not give you an excuse when it comes to keeping people from harm. Many charities work in difficult environments, but the report says “Public expectations of charities operating in this space are high precisely because of the critical importance of this work. Failure to take reasonable steps to protect people cannot be excused by the difficult context a charity is working in, nor can incidents of harm be justified in relation to the importance of the cause.”

Culture matters

We need a culture where people can speak up. Whoever they are. Whoever the perpetrator is. We need to trust our staff but also have clear lines of accountability. Charity boards must be accountable and open to staff, and there should be full and frank disclosure to all, including regulators.

We need reporting structures in place

A good culture by itself is not enough. It must be backed up by good structures. We need to put in place mechanisms and procedures that enable people to speak up and then to make sure that we don't just hear, but we actively listen.

Don’t bury your mistakes

Charities can best protect their reputation - and funding - by identifying problems early and dealing with them. Not by wishing them away or hiding them. Denial is not an option. Your job is not to avoid or deflect negative media criticism which might have a short-term impact on your charity. It is to ensure the charity operates with integrity and delivers on its purpose.

Be ethical in all your dealings

Doing good isn't enough - how we do it matters too. More than ever. Maximising value and impact isn't an excuse for a delivery model absent of values. And in the long run, if we try to deliver for beneficiaries in a way which others perceive as unethical, it’s unlikely we’re doing the best job.

We’re making progress

This is a difficult time for Oxfam, and for aid charities and the sector more broadly. But let's be clear: a lot of good has (and will) come from this episode. More trustee boards are on it. Safeguarding is on the register of many more charities, though not yet all.

We're also talking about issues around power in a way that we have avoided in the past. Bravo to Acevo for their work on bullying and harassment. And to Dame Mary Marsh for leading work on charity ethical principles. A new safeguarding hub for charities is also on the way.


I hope that this opens up a conversation with the public on the challenges charities face in their work. And on the need for proper infrastructure to support the frontline.

This, in particular, is a challenge for those in the finance department. We must accept the need for stronger core functions, and resource and support the workers in them properly. And we must look across our policies and processes to ensure we are properly protecting our beneficiaries, volunteers and fellow staff. Yes, our culture needs to change at times, but so too does the quality and depth of our support structures.

Oxfam, aid charities and the voluntary sector will, I think, emerge stronger from these difficult times. NCVO and our partners across the charity umbrella bodies will work with them to do that.


This article first appeared in the July edition of Finance Focus, CFG's monthly magazine for members.

This post was last reviewed on 7 August 2019 at 10:33
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