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A wake-up call for charities? How to respond to the safeguarding challenge

02 Jul 2018 In-depth

Charities are under scrutiny on safeguarding, but what needs to be done? Charity Finance convened a panel of experts and Ian Allsop secured their views.

Safeguarding is currently very much a hot topic in the charity sector. While it has been important for some time, particularly for organisations working with vulnerable groups, it was made more visible in early 2018 by the revelations about historic events at Oxfam. The Charity Commission has clearly now decided it will be focusing heavily on this area. But was the media attention a genuine wake-up call for charities, or is it a case of just a few bad apples with most organisations fully up to speed on their responsibilities?

Farrer & Co’s Safeguarding Unit has seen an increase in activity in the last three years, with a number of charities taking steps to improve their arrangements prior to the recent media coverage, often as a result of having had a difficult experience in a safeguarding environment. And where charities hadn’t been thinking about it, many are now.

David Smellie, who heads up the unit, gives genuine credit to the media for bringing important stories to the public attention. “They have given survivors a voice, and not just in charities. This is not a wake-up call to any head of safeguarding but it may be to their trustees. We have suddenly seen them think: ‘Oh my goodness, we have to get on top of this’. This is welcome as safeguarding heads are now getting more airtime.”

Policing and safeguarding adviser Peter Spindler previously led child abuse investigations for the Metropolitan Police, and now sits on a number of voluntary sector boards. He feels that there has been a range of responses in the sector, with different charities operating at different levels of capability. “Staff responsible for safeguarding get it, but it is a wake-up call to trustees in terms of governance.”

He thinks that safeguarding officers still have difficulties in getting trustee (and sometimes CEO) attention, and in bringing concerns about senior management to the fore. “One I have spoken to sees themselves as being treated as an irritation by senior colleagues.”

Tina Wilson, head of safeguarding of Scout Association, is relatively new to the sector but has a wealth of experience with a local authority. Referring to her charity, she says: “It isn’t a wake-up call for us as our trustees already take it seriously, but from discussions around the sector, this isn’t the case everywhere. A consistently high standard would be beneficial to all of us.”

Renuka Jeyarajah-Dent, director of operations and deputy CEO at the children’s charity Coram, agrees. “The sector is so vast and variable that rolling it into something misleads the public. But a wake-up call is always good as you sometimes only know there is an issue when you have to think about the action needed.” She points out that safeguarding is more than just protection. “Promoting welfare and evidencing it is one the charity sector needs to consider more.”

Marcus Erooga is an independent safeguarding consultant, associate editor of the Journal of Sexual Aggression, and editor of a recent book on what can be learnt from the Jimmy Savile inquiries. He thinks that most organisations have understood the importance of safeguarding and recognise that it needs to be dealt with. However, he cautions that while some may be confident that they have implemented adequate procedures, that doesn’t mean it is working in practice. “Everyone at senior management level may think that they have got it sorted and breathe a sigh of relief, rather than seeing it as a real live thing. Getting it to the next level is the challenge.“

Karen Walker-Simpson, head of safeguarding at Comic Relief, is currently conducting doctoral research into the reporting of, and response to, abuse in development settings. She agrees that safeguarding must be embedded in practice. “There is a need to move beyond a tick-box approach to compliance in favour of one which focuses on increasing understanding and influencing actual lived practice.”

Much of the media reporting focused on the international aid sector, where charities have the complication of working across multiple countries and jurisdictions. Walker-Simpson points to another challenge, which is that a safeguarding issue at another organisation can have a knock-on effect on your donors and their trust in your charity. “You are not just conscious of safeguarding in your own organisation but across the aid sector. You may be doing the right things but how far can you get other charities to come on that journey?”

Jennifer Kelly, head of international safeguarding and health & safety at Prince’s Trust International, says there have been amber and red lights around safeguarding in the aid sector for many years, mentioning a Save the Children report from 2008 on sexual exploitation by humanitarian workers. “These issues have been present for a while but it seems that a number of factors have combined to highlight them further.”

Taking it seriously

So why haven’t some trustee boards been taking safeguarding as seriously as they might? Jeyarajah-Dent says that although charities are competing for limited funding, the temptation to appoint a board where commerciallyminded trustees predominate must be resisted. “They have the skills in bringing in money but are more distanced from child services.”

Spindler concurs. “The background of the Oxfam trustees seemed to be from big business. If you haven’t got someone from the public sector and/or with a safeguarding background, there will be less understanding at board level.”

Walker-Simpson says the key thing is having trustees who ask the right questions. “Rather than what and when, it should be how and why. You can have a designated trustee for safeguarding, a focal point because everyone is told they have to. But if they don’t have time or training, they will ask the wrong questions and capture the wrong information.”

Kelly agrees. “These focal points often want to know and learn more when the responsibility is placed upon them, but lack time and resources.”

There is also the delicate balance of reputational and beneficiary risk, with suggestions that Oxfam and other aid organisations covered up some of the safeguarding failures because of fears they would negatively impact upon donations. Notably, Bill Anderson, who held the role of global safeguarding officer at Oxfam for seven months in 2011, told the International Development Committee this year that it took him a while to realise that some of his conversations with colleagues at staff level had been at cross-purposes. When he talked about risk, it had been in the context of protecting the vulnerable, whereas in fact most risk conversations in Oxfam were about “reputational risk and how to protect the Oxfam brand”.

Our panel identified that such a focus on reputation reflects the priorities that decision-makers often have when they come from a commercial background. However, Oxfam is not alone in this, says Smellie. “The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has already shown that even up until very recently, the organisational response was primarily focused on protecting reputation, almost to the exclusion of anything else. Yes, reputation needs to be taken seriously but those organisations got it wrong. Now it is often more about trying to find the right balance.”

Kelly says that if you take a snapshot of INGO risk registers, where organisations are juggling many risks at different levels in fragile environments, inevitably reputation comes into it. However, she adds: “You do need to consider reputation but we must acknowledge that there are also two moral imperatives – the safeguarding of beneficiaries and achieving the best impact you can with donor money to meeting the need of those beneficiaries. They cannot and must not be mutually exclusive. So the discussion around reputation is very nuanced and needs to be carefully explored.”

Wilson says there is a fear factor in safeguarding. “It is a sensitive issue but no one talks about what happens when it goes wrong. Charities need to stick their heads above the parapet and admit they need help, without the fear of doing so bringing the charity into disrepute.”

However, Walker-Simpson says this is easier said than done given the tone of public discourse. “The public outcry influences the response from government and funders. How can we educate the public? How do we create space for vulnerability where organisations can admit they haven’t quite got it right but need assistance?”

There is also a need to educate funders, particularly around statistics. At first glance an increase in referrals, for example, looks bad, but it could be a positive sign that safeguarding is being taken seriously and people feel able to express their concerns. Conversely, low numbers do not necessarily mean safety.

Smellie’s general advice is that while charities need to be mindful of reputation, they should respond to any safeguarding incident with a three-pronged approach. “You need to get your HR, safeguarding and communications functions on board. Take a cohesive response. But you actually don’t need to be concerned about reputation if the child, or vulnerable adult, is at the centre of your response, as it should follow naturally.”


Through observing, comparing and contrasting how things work across different sectors, Smellie concludes that the role of regulation and inspection is important. “Some charities are highly regulated because of their activities. There is guidance, legislation, inspection. For others there is none. This results in a mixed bag.”

He says he has worked regularly with a lot of charitable schools. “It has been fascinating to see the impact of regulation and inspection of safeguarding. Twenty years ago I do not think safeguarding in schools was strong. It was not a priority. But because of scandals there was a regulatory response, and now a school’s inspection grade cannot be higher than its safeguarding score. It is still not perfect by any means, but as all schools are subject to the same regulation, there is much greater conformity.”

One area where schools are perhaps ahead of other charities is with employment references, where they have much more freedom around what they can disclose and ask about an individuals’ employment history because of statutory guidance specific to the sector.

Charities can find this area challenging. As Jeyarajah-Dent says, “references tend to be bland because of the fear of being in breach of employment law”.

Erooga wonders if HR teams got too defensive. “How much are the problems with references real ones? Or is it part of the culture? There has never been a pushback saying ‘this is constricting, can we find an equitable way forward?’ It has almost become accepted but is in danger of prioritising protection for organisations rather than children.”

Smellie thinks that there is no reason in principle that a group of charities could not get together and establish a protocol for asking each other questions around safeguarding, in the same way that 22 aid charities pledged joint action in the wake of the Oxfam scandal. “This would establish the power to say ‘no, I am not going to recruit unless I get a positive reference’.”

The reference issue is the symptom of a bigger problem about case management and file keeping, argues Spindler. “One of the challenges around safeguarding is that it is hard to determine what has happened in order to enable someone to write a meaningful reference, partly because it hasn’t been handled well in the first place. It is really important that a culture of challenge is brought in, where incidents or concerns are reported and dealt with properly.”

Embedding a culture?

So how do you embed a culture of safeguarding within an organisation? After all, you can have a list of procedures but how do you make them effective? Above all, everybody in the organisation must know and understand that safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility.

To ensure this is the case, CEOs need to be talking to heads of safeguarding regularly. Senior management need to stay in touch with the reality of what safeguarding looks like on the ground, otherwise it won’t translate to trustees. It is people and not policies that safeguard the vulnerable.

For Erooga, this sounds obvious in theory but is much trickier in practice. “Senior management and trustees need to understand what they want to achieve, and the type of organisation they want to lead. And everyone needs to be consulted about what kind of charity they want to be part of. Otherwise, as some of the Savile inquiries showed, there is a difference between what happens at operational and management levels.

“Everyone should have the opportunity to contribute and monitor on an ongoing basis. It can be difficult and uncomfortable, but sometimes very senior managers become detached from the real world because they have such power and control over their own environment that they lose sight of the rest of the organisation, and don’t always meet cultural expectations across it.”

Wilson adds: “A culture of open challenge is difficult. But basic rules of engagement and commonality of values are key. People need to know what to challenge and the expectation of the organisation. If there is a language that cuts across cultures so that everyone understands values, everyone is freer to challenge.”

Spindler says that with his trustee hat on, he finds it scary to have responsibility for safeguarding, and that there must be a supportive culture. “The expectations placed on trustees are very significant. We need to try not to make it so scary. If you start hanging trustees out to dry, and develop a blame culture, this does further damage. Empower and equip.”

Walker-Simpson says that viewing safeguarding purely in terms of protecting people from harm is one of the reasons why it seems so daunting. “It can seem less terrifying if you take a wider view. Make a business case for it. If you want to get trustees and senior management involved, say it is part of the vision, not something you do separately. It is about getting better outcomes for beneficiaries. People then get on board.”

Jeyarajah-Dent suggests that culture comes from a shared understanding of why a charity exists and how it achieves this. However, she acknowledges that this can be a challenge. “Living with something that is more than a policy is the biggest challenge.”

Kelly advises that management teams must take the opportunity to engage in some of the complexities of organisational safeguarding and ensure they look after their safeguarding teams. “Speaking truth to power is tough. Support whistleblowers and acknowledge their bravery. Have conversations about safeguarding that may take people out of their comfort zones.”

This leads on to some thoughts about the importance of diversity, and what Jeyarajah-Dent calls the politics of race. She says that historically at least, people who were “qualification: white” were less likely to have their actions questioned in an international aid setting.

But diversity is not only a challenge for organisations working overseas. If you haven’t got people on the board or senior management team who are aware of the needs and challenges of specific communities, how can you ensure that your safeguarding is as good as it should be?

For Walker-Simpson it is about those on the ground – local practitioners and beneficiaries – having a voice in leadership decisions. Otherwise “they are being made at a senior level on behalf of people not represented in the room. We need to shift the power balance to give them a say.”

Smellie concludes that trustees and senior management can underestimate how big an impact they can have. “If they prioritise safeguarding and ask the right questions, it has an enormous ripple effect through an organisation. But sometimes trustees don’t appreciate that.

“If you are not careful you can treat safeguarding with a defensive mindset, and worry only about regulatory compliance. If this is your approach it will invariably become a scary, negative topic, and not positive to deal with. But actually, the best organisations I have worked with on safeguarding view it in a wholly positive way. They have left compliance a long way behind and moved on to concentrate on welfare. This brings it to life and engages everyone.

“But the majority of organisations are still getting there.”

With thanks to Farrer & Co for its support with this feature


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