Tania Mason: There is much more at stake now than just Oxfam's reputation

15 Mar 2018 Voices

Tania Mason says that the whole sector needs to react to to the crisis of trust it is currently facing, not just the international aid sector.

Much has been written about whether the national media’s vilification of Oxfam was a gross overreaction, perhaps even a right-wing conspiracy against a highly effective campaigning organisation that highlights uncomfortable truths about global inequalities and power imbalances. After all, the charity’s response in 2011 when the Haiti allegations came to light was not to bury its head – after sending an expert investigation team to the region, it dismissed four staff and required three to resign, and put in place a raft of measures which led to it becoming widely viewed among the international aid community as a leader in the field of safeguarding. Those are hardly the actions of a negligent or complacent organisation.

But what has transpired since the first story broke is much more important than whether Oxfam was fairly treated. It’s become apparent that sexual abuse and misconduct is a massive problem in the world of overseas aid, and the organisations trusted to deliver that aid have not been dealing with the problem adequately. There is much more at stake now than just Oxfam’s reputation.

The whole sector is facing a crisis of trust – and make no mistake, this means the whole charity sector, not just the international aid sector. The Presidents Club has seen to that, and there will be more salacious revelations to come, once the graduate recruitment scheme Charityworks publishes the results of its survey on sexism and harassment in the sector. Charities’ mistakes, of all kinds, are now gleefully seized upon and the moral high ground the sector once occupied is sliding away fast. So the whole sector has to react – that means you and your trustee board.

As comms expert Sarah Pinch points out in her article for Governance & Leadership magazine, the quality of governance is an essential component in a charity’s ability to prevent a crisis happening in the first place, and to respond properly should one hit. Your board now needs to take a long hard look at your organisation’s culture and systems – lift some stones, see what’s beneath. And, learn to love your risk register, as Stephen McAndrew advises in his article. Prevention is way better than cure. Peer closely at those red and amber ratings: if your systems and processes aren’t good enough to mitigate those risks, consider whether you ought to invest some money to improve them – should you be carrying out DBS checks on all your volunteers? Do you need to devise a policy on how to handle historic allegations? Are all your staff adequately trained in data protection? Would your safeguarding culture be improved by adopting feminist leadership principles, as ActionAid has done? What else do you need to do to ensure that your beneficiaries are protected, that your staff feel safe to call out bad practice, that your charity won’t fall victim to fraud or sexual abuse or data security breaches (or whatever else is at the top of your risk register)?

If you believe your trustee board should devote more resources to these things, say so – and if they agree, make sure you write down why, so you can justify the spend to your donors and other stakeholders. If there is any silver lining to be found on this dark cloud, it could well be that spending money on safeguarding, compliance and other “overheads” should be an easier sell from now on.

Tania Mason is editor of Governance & Leadership magazine

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