‘Staff and donors expect charities to take ESG seriously,’ says RSPCA CEO 

07 Apr 2022 News

Chris Sherwood, chief executive of RSPCA, and Baby the dog

Charity leaders need to take their environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues seriously, and build it into their “core purpose”, experts said last week. 

At Civil Society Media’s ESG Imperative conference last week, Chris Sherwood, chief executive of RSPCA told delegates: “Our supporters and our existing and future workforce expect us to take this seriously.” 

Sherwood was part of a panel to discuss the role of leaders and was joined Daniel Chan, chair of the ICAEW Charity Committee, Nathan Nalla, director of Be the Riot, Shivaji Shiva, partner at VWV, and Sue Tibballs, chief executive at Sheila McKechnie Foundation.

Tibballs added: “There are people coming into our sector, who are just not willing to accept what they see as charities operating out of step with normal expectations and requirements.”

‘Lagging behind the corporate sector’

Sherwood said the challenge for charities was knowing where to start. 

“We do have to be honest. We are lagging behind the corporate sector in engaging with the ESG debate,” he said

He suggested that part of the sector’s reluctance could be “fear” because charities don’t want to be seen to be “greenwashing” their activity. 

Meanwhile, Chan said that there were ways the sector should lead the way. 

He described the “social” part of ESG as being “what charities inherently do”. 

Chan then urged charities to draw more attention to this. 

He said: “This is an area that charities can really help companies shape their narrative.” 

Tibballs added that charities were in a unique position where they are often campaigning on issues, as well as being challenged themselves. 

“We need to swallow the pill and not forget that we're also diagnosing the problem and prescribing a medicine,” she said. 

‘More than a tick box exercise’ 

Tibballs urged charities to consider ESG as “about the core strategic purpose of the organisation”, adding that “this isn’t just about compliance”. 

Shiva called for more openness. 

“There's an awful lot of brilliant work going on,” he said. “But I don't feel like the conversation coming from the centre is yet being heard in a way that it needs to be.” 

He suggested that one reason people “do find it difficult to open conversations” is a worry about not being able to control things once they start.  

‘Disruption is the new normal’ 

Sherwood noted how it can be difficult to “focus on medium and longer-term issues rather than being distracted by the crisis”, especially now that “disruption is the new normal”. 

But he said: “How we work to deliver outcomes for beneficiaries is as important as what we achieve.”

This makes the ESG agenda “integral to good governance”, he added. 

Sherwood said it would help if there was better guidance for charities. 

“What we do need I think in this debate is much better guidance in the sector around how we measure our impact,” he said. 

Later in the discussion he added: “It [ESG] can feel like one of these big icebergs that we're not sure where to start.” 

Changing perspectives 

Panellists also discussed how ESG priorities fit in with parts of charities’ work. 

Nalla told delegates: “I come at this from a purely EDI lens, which is intrinsically linked to conversations around environmental protection and climate change.” 

He said charities should not approach EDI and ESG separately, but that this might mean charities changing how they approach problems, or the “the spirit of your mission”. 

Nalla used an example of homelessness charities, Nalla said this disproportionately affects LGBTQ people. 

“A large proportion of LGBTQ people who experience homelessness do so because of their identity,” he said.  

This is then made worse when they face “barriers in homeless shelters because of homophobia, transphobia”. 

Nalla concluded: “And so if your mission is to eradicate homelessness, then you do need to be tapped into some of the nuances.” 

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