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After Oxfam, charities cannot bury their heads over misconduct

05 March 2018 by Jimmy Nicholls

After Oxfam, charities cannot bury their heads over misconduct - Read more

Sexual misconduct allegations make the case that burying problems only makes them worse in the long run

‘If we want charities to be transparent – and we do – we are unfortunately going to hear more about things going wrong. Harassment and abuse clearly exist across all sectors and countries, and no-one can be complacent.’

In her tweet, Vicky Browning, CEO of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO), summarised the huge problem facing charities as they attempt to put themselves in order after public scandals at the likes of Kids Company, the Presidents Club and – most recently – Oxfam.

Her remarks came after the exposure of Roland Van Hauwermeiren, Oxfam’s country director at Haiti, who admitted to having sex with prostitutes on the charity’s premises while he was on a relief mission after an earthquake in 2010 according to an internal Oxfam report from 2011.

After an internal investigation, Oxfam accepted an offer of resignation form Van Hauwermeiren, allowing him ‘a phased and dignified exit’, in the report’s phrase, so long as he cooperated with the investigation. Two other men accused of misconduct were allowed to resign, and four were sacked.

“The decision to agree to a resignation deal seems misguided today”

Controversially, the report confirmed that Barbara Stocking, then chief executive of Oxfam, and Penny Lawrence, her deputy, had agreed to the resignation deal, citing contribution Van Hauwermeiren had made to the charity’s work. The charity was also worried that sacking the country director might damage the Haitian programme.

The decision seems misguided today. Following the article in The Times that first exposed the scandal, allegations of similar sexual misconduct in Chad, where Van Hauwermeiren also worked, emerged. Lawrence resigned. The Charity Commission then opened a statutory inquiry into Oxfam.

Elsewhere, the Haitian president Jovenel Moïse publicly condemned the charity. Thousands of donors cancelled their debits. And both British and European officials threatened the stop funding Oxfam. In seeking to mitigate the damage, Oxfam amplified it.

Boosting transparency

As Browning’s comment shows, charities are facing similar pressure to the private and public sectors to open up. There is increasingly a presumption of transparency in order to secure the trust of the public, who – despite recent scandals – still generally think well of charities.

In an interview with The Guardian, Browning noted that after the death of Olive Cooke in 2015 – whose suicide was linked to massive numbers of charity donation requests – charities were inclined to reject criticism due to a belief in the importance of their work.

Browning added that the week since the Oxfam scandal broke meant the ‘sense that we are slightly untouchable because of the nature of our work has gone’.

The ramifications of the charity’s decision to deal with the problem internally shows how this expectation of transparency increases the reputational risks of fixing problems behind the scenes.

‘The sexual misconduct is something that will have damaged Oxfam, but the damage is far greater because of how the public are perceiving it handled it,’ said Chris Priestley, a partner in the charities team at the law firm Withersworldwide.

“The employer needs to be mindful of the welfare of all involved”

Opening up may be safer than hiding things. ‘It is definitely better to report fully and frankly than report it in a way that is not as open as it should be,’ Priestley said.

‘I think when an organisation faces serious problems – and no matter how good governance is things may still go wrong – then how it deals with those issues and the lessons learned are as important when it comes to how it will be judged.’

That said, organisations must be mindful of their legal obligations during any investigatory process.

‘An employer obviously cannot issue a “step by step” commentary on the allegations and all of these fact-finding, investigatory and final decision-making processes to the press, media or to its supporters, donors and the wider public via its own normal public communications channels,’ said Cecile Gillard, legal manager, charities and civil society, at Burton Sweet.

‘The employer needs to be mindful of the welfare of all involved – potential witnesses and potential victims, the accused staff member, colleagues and so on. It needs to carry out, or commission to be carried out, a proper investigation to establish facts and report findings, so an appropriate decision and appropriate action can be made on a fair and lawful basis.’

Bolstering safeguards

But transparency also applies inside an organisation. When it comes to safeguarding of charities’ beneficiaries, the focus is both on putting in place measures through which staff can raise concerns about others’ conduct, and embedding a culture that supports that.

Oxfam claims it has already improved its processes in this respect. In a statement released with the 2011 memo, Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International’s executive director, said: ‘The measures we put in place as a result of the investigation mean that the case would be handled differently today, but it is clear that there is much more to be done.

‘The action we are now taking, including an independent review of our culture and practices by women’s rights leaders, will help ensure abuse is rooted out of Oxfam and help us become more effective in our mission to help create lasting solutions to poverty.’

The matter goes further than process though. ‘Safeguarding is an important facet of good governance in any organisation,’ said Peter Swabey, director of policy and research at ICSA. ‘However, where an individual is committed to acting inappropriately or illegally, they will.

‘The best policies and processes are ineffective if the organisational culture is not right. People must be encouraged to speak out and organisations should share their failings and lessons learned if the sector is to get better at tackling such behaviour.’

“One of the most important things is embedding a culture where people feel they can raise any concerns they have”

Priestley also flagged the importance of culture. ‘One of the most important things is embedding a culture where people feel they can raise any concerns they have,’ he said. ‘There needs to be an openness and that needs to be driven by the board, which makes it clear that it absolutely takes any complaint or concerns raised seriously.’

He also cited the example that the education sector has set in training staff. ‘Schools have, for example, a long history of having had to look at the safeguarding of pupils, and training people in spotting problems, and it is worth learning the best practice out there,’ he said.


When British officials said they would bring disqualification proceedings against former Kids Company directors, many wondered if this would deter people from becoming charity trustees, at a time when charities are reportedly struggling to recruit. Similar fears have emerged in the wake of the Oxfam scandal.

Some of the solutions to this focus on trustee candidates rather than the charities themselves. Priestley suggested that trustee candidates may do more research into the organisations they are applying to in future, now they are aware of some of the problems facing the sector.

‘For quite a long time the focus has been on the approach charities take to completing due diligence on whether someone is a “fit and proper person” to be a trustee,’ he said.

‘But there has not been so much focus on doing it the other way around. You can see more of that happening and candidates asking questions of the charity that they may join.’

Even so, asked whether charities should have a legal obligation to disclose certain risks, including financial, regulatory or employment-related, Priestley demurred.

‘I am not in favour of charities having a legal obligation of disclosure to prospective trustees – it would be difficult to frame and in the end may not be particularly helpful,’ he said.

‘That said, those who do have the right skills and expertise to become a charity trustees should have the ability to do their own due diligence on the charity before agreeing to take on the role.’

It is however possible that bigger changes are need. Some argue that, for large charities, the model of trustees handing off day-to-day management to executives, while bearing the legal responsibility for what happens, could do with revision. Potentially this would place more responsibility on the heads of chief executives and human resources managers.

‘There is a debate to be had about whether the current model of a board made up entirely of volunteers who meet relatively infrequently is still fit for purpose,’ Priestley said.

‘Given the trustees ultimately carry the can, if you are a large organisation with a multi-million pound turnover working internationally or extensively throughout one country, how can trustees possibly be aware of everything?’

Jimmy Nicholls is deputy editor of Governance and Compliance

ICSA has published guidance on trustee recruitment, while last May, ICSA released a report on charity culture, ‘Cultural Markers – Assessing, measuring and improving culture in the charitable sector’. This is a useful resource to help trustees assess and evaluate their organisation's culture, and take action if necessary.

Chris Priestley is author of The ICSA Charity Trustee's Guide, 3rd edition, available from the ICSA Shop.

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