Earlier this year the media exposed repeated incidents of abuse in some of the largest NGOs in the international aid sector. This included the abuse of beneficiaries of charity aid and also the sexual harassment of employees. In response to these revelations the International Development Committee’s report Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector was published in July 2018.
This report redefines the parameters around which NGOs, their donors, multilateral agencies and regulators implement safeguards and act to prevent this scale of abuse from occurring again. It also highlights a number of common themes of which all charity trustees and managers should be aware.
Embedding policies in the culture and fabric of an organisation
Charities are founded on aims and objectives which provide a focal point for how they carry out their activities. Policies are required to ensure that these activities are carried out in accordance with applicable laws and regulations. The committee’s report found that NGOs had policies covering safeguarding and whistleblowing but that because they were not embedded in the culture of those NGOs, they were not always referred to when dealing with allegations.
Culture in any organisation is fostered by the ‘tone at the top’. Trustees should establish the significance of such policies, through consideration of them in their decision making. For example, trustees need to make sure that the implementation of risk management and operational policies cuts across the strategy and feeds into operational plans for delivery, when considering organisational strategy.
This in turn, empowers managers to embed processes for compliance in workplans, creating an environment where compliance is part of delivery. This type of approach allows charities to respond to changes in regulatory and legal environments more easily, ensuring policies become ‘living’ and proactive, rather than reactive.
Questions to ask:
- How are my charity’s policies implemented?
- Are policies and the systems to implement them seen as an integral part of our work or just a box to be ticked?
- When was the last time significant policies, such as safeguarding and whistleblowing were reviewed and updated?
- Do the policies that my charity has reflect the operational realities of how we work?
Understanding the logistical and cultural context in which policies are applied
The committee identified instances where the systems designed to comply with organisational policies were not effective and in the case of whistleblowing, were not always accessible to those who may need to use them. Further, it was also found that NGOs working in overseas locations had not properly considered whether the policies and processes were appropriate in the cultural context of some locations.
The application of a cross-cutting approach to the delivery of a charity’s strategy, provides opportunities to identify areas where current policies may not be viable, either due to the availability of resources for those who may need to access or apply the systems, or where using such a system may give rise to other issues, due to the cultural context.
Through identification of shortfalls in resources or cultural barriers to systems, charities can properly consider areas where alternative approaches or further investment is needed to ensure that they can have the greatest impact.
Questions to ask:
- Do we work in locations or with communities where application of our policies may conflict with the culture?
- Can all those (staff and, where relevant, beneficiaries) who need to access our whistleblowing and other systems properly access and implement those systems?
Discussing issues openly and transparently with donors
The evidence received by the committee from NGOs in the aid sector, highlighted pressure to reduce overhead costs as a key reason why safeguarding resources were not properly funded and hence ineffective. The committee stated clearly that “[d]onors cannot expect aid organisations to integrate safeguarding into their programmes without the resource to do so.” It went on to emphasise the importance of NGOs being open and transparent with donors about the issues they face to ensure that there is investment to help the sector tackle safeguarding issues.
For the wider charity sector, this highlights how charities must engage their donors in honest discussions about the resources they need and why they are needed. Public focus on how charitable funds are used has never been greater and the sector needs to lead the conversation in an open and transparent way, rather than being defensive. Charities are on the front line and therefore best placed to educate donors about where funds are needed most. It does the sector a disservice to hide true costs within budgets to meet donors’ expectations.
Questions to ask:
- What is my charity’s process for reviewing funding applications?
- Are we actively engaging with our funders to provide funding for the resources we require?
- Are we having open conversations with funders to explain the challenges we face?
Reporting serious incidents
The committee received evidence showing that quite often NGOs were failing to fully report the details of allegations and incidents to donors and regulators, for fear that the act of reporting would damage their reputation and make it more difficult to access funding or be the subject of regulatory action. The committee was clear that The Department for International Development (DfiD) will not penalise organisations for reporting but cautioned that penalties will be applied to those who fail to properly respond to incidents. The Charity Commission, citing statistics relating to charities working with vulnerable beneficiaries, indicating that the number of reports it receives is far lower than it would expect, given the environments in which charities work.
Questions to ask:
- Have all incidents been reported to senior management and/or the board?
- If not, why not? Does a low level of reports indicate that my charity’s reporting systems are not working effectively?
Charity trustees have a duty to foster a culture which does not look to apportion blame but rather to identify where and how things have gone wrong and apply the lessons learned. This creates a culture which empowers staff to report concerns that they have to their superiors and the board. This also means that when reporting incidents to the commission and other stakeholders, the charity can clearly demonstrate its commitment to managing the risk of future incidents.
Eddie Finch is a charity partner and Gemma Archer is a charity manager at Buzzacott LLP.
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