Six steps to take in the aftermath of the Oxfam inquiry

By Katie Higginson, CEO of Community Impact Bucks

While the Oxfam scandal shocked and appalled the general public and those working in the voluntary sector, the controversy and the subsequent inquiry can feel far away from the work we do in Buckinghamshire and of little relevance to the day-to-day running of our organisations.

However, despite the failures happening in distant countries and the culprits working in a huge multinational organisation, there are important lessons for all organisations which seek to deliver positive social impact.

As the Charity Commission’s Chair Baroness Stowell states in the foreword to the Commission’s report on the scandal: “No charity is so large, nor is its mission so important, that it can afford to put its own reputation ahead of the dignity and well-being of those it exists to protect. But the implications of this inquiry are not confined to the failings of a single, big charity, because no charity is too small to bear its own share of responsibility for upholding the wider good name of charity.”

So what can we learn from the scandal?

Since the publication of the report, there has been extensive analysis from both the media and representatives within our sector, including some insightful commentary from ex-ActionAid Trustee Andrew Purkis and NCVO’s Karl Wilding.

As Andrew Purkis notes, all charities, regardless of size, are juggling competing priorities which are often accompanied by important moral and ethical questions. Even with best intentions, trustees won’t always get it right but, by putting some key things in place, every organisation can limit the possibility of wrong decisions being made.

Below are six areas every voluntary organisation should address:

1/ Safeguarding vulnerable people should run through the core of every organisation

Even if you are not directly working with vulnerable service-users, you will come across them – perhaps amongst your volunteers or staff, or at fundraising events. Does everyone in your organisation know what to do if they have concerns about somebody? Have a look at NCVO’s guide for help on developing a solid approach to safeguarding in your organisation.

2/ Boards need to be diverse

Having people with different experiences and different ways of thinking will strengthen your decision-making: a person with a certain perspective will ask particular questions which can lead you to tackle issues you may not have thought of, and consequently generate new ideas and better solutions. If you are unsure how to embrace diversity, have a look at our range of online practical resources.

3/ Service users need to be involved  in decisions

People who use your services should take part in all aspects of the service – not just as ‘end-users’ but at every stage from design, delivery, governance, to monitoring and evaluation. This will ensure that your service is truly effective and accountable to the people who matter most, and will leave your service-users feeling connected, valued, and empowered. It is also worth noting that this approach is increasingly expected by funders (for example the National Lottery Community Fund looks for a people-led approach). NCVO has published some useful advice for service user involvement. 

4/ Manage your risk

A risk register will help you to have a clear and comprehensive understanding of what risks your organisation faces, and gives you specific actions to undertake in order to manage, reduce or eliminate those risks. It doesn’t have to be complicated and, once you know what it involves, it is far less daunting. We have picked out the best tools and guidance on how to do this , and can also provide further consultancy support to develop your risk management.

5/ Have a safe, open culture which listens

As Karl Wilding highlighted, creating the right culture within an organisation is crucial. Having an environment where people can speak up and be heard, as well as having the mechanisms in place that ensure these voice are ‘actively listened to’, will protect and strengthen your organisation. Protect (formerly Public Concern at Work) provides advice and support such as a ‘360° Benchmark’ tool to help you assess the effectiveness of your whistleblowing arrangements and provide you with an action plan on how to improve.

6/ Address your problems early

It is inevitable that problems will emerge but, by dealing with any issues as early as possible as well as being open and accountable, charities can protect their reputation and thereby funding and support levels. Be responsible and keep true to your mission. Our annual trustee conference on 19 September, Transparency and Trust, will provide key insights and simple actions to take away to help you achieve this.

What next?

The inquiry does not give us all the answers; it has shown us how complex the situation is and how we shouldn’t draw overly-simplistic conclusions. What it does tell us though is that safeguarding is not an extra but “a requirement of being a good charity”. It also highlights how “doing good isn’t enough – how we do it matters too.”

If you would like any advice on any of these issues, get in touch with us at info@communityimpactbucks.org.uk / 0300 111 1250 or if you need more in-depth support, contact Diane Rutter on diane@communityimpactbucks.org.uk about our paid-for consultancy service.

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