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Charity governance must be ready when the halo slips

18 April 2018 by Henry Ker

Charity governance must be ready when the halo slips - Read more

Oxfam has punctured the superficial view that only the most noble work in charities

Back in December 2015, I spoke to former Oxfam CEO Dame Barbara Stocking, who had been in charge during the Haiti scandal.

In the interview she said organisations ‘have a responsibility to operate ethically in [developing countries] so that they have a positive impact on the people … [and] bring the same level of ethics that they would if operating in the US or the UK.’

It is still an important message, even if the current circumstances cast the remarks in a different light.

We, as a society, expect charities to maintain the highest ethical standards and operate with a virtue perhaps not found in business, or even public services. This is, in part, because we consider charities to be led by their values, their only mission to build a better world.

The Oxfam scandal has punctured the superficial view that only the most noble people could be part of such an undertaking.

“We cannot guarantee zero incidents, but what we can do is make sure there is zero tolerance”

But it was probably never how things worked. As Vicky Browning, chief executive of ACEVO and our cover interview this month, explains: ‘[Charities] are still very much a part of society … [and because of this] at times we are going to see the worst of society within organisations.

I do not think we can assume that charities are somehow uniquely saintly or do not have the same pressures of humanity that any other sector has.’

As she says, charities cannot operate outside of reality, in a place where misconduct will never happen. The key is how they respond: ‘We cannot guarantee zero incidents, but what we can do is make sure there is zero tolerance. We will not accept or allow it, we will not hide it – and we will deal with it.’

The response to the scandal has already begun. ‘We are a sector that has a strong history of self-inspection,’ Browning says.

‘[Charity leaders] are checking they have got their systems in place, modelling the right kind of behaviour within their organisation and considering the wider societal context and developments … making sure that their employees and volunteers understand it is okay to come forward and they will be supported.’

While we cannot expect charities to be perfect, hopefully this episode, and resulting self-inspection, will change how the sector counters misconduct – and help charities to operate with the same ethical standards wherever they may be working.

You can read the full interview here.

Henry Ker is editor of Governance and Compliance

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