Vicky Browning: Charity governance after Oxfam

The chief executive of ACEVO shares thoughts on Oxfam scandal

Vicky Browning

Now the dust has settled on the Oxfam scandal, what are your thoughts on it?

It is important to set the context of what has happened. Charities are values-led organisations. They are all about building a fairer, healthier, more equal world, but they are still very much a part of society.

They are not removed from it. So, that means 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.

However, the public – fairly so – has a high expectation of how charities will respond and that is the bit we need to make sure we get right.

Charities need to make sure that they have got all the processes and the systems in place to try and prevent this sort of thing from happening, but that cannot ever fully stop wrongdoing.

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.

That is where charities need to be judged and a crucial part is the leadership. The leader’s role is to set the culture, to set the values to embed a zero-tolerance approach that is understood throughout the organisation.

Do you feel there was a failure of leadership in the past or present that contributed to this?

I do not think so. With Oxfam the furore was very much around the international NGO [non-governmental organisation] sector. There are some particular challenges within that environment and Oxfam in many ways was very strong in this regard, and one of the best organisations around safeguarding.

The challenge it had was with the sense of reputation. The desire to protect reputation is understandable because reputation is important for charities and we want people to trust us.

However, we cannot protect our reputation at the expense of protecting the people and causes that we are here to serve.

“We cannot guarantee zero incidents, but we can ensure zero tolerance”

That is potentially where things went wrong at Oxfam. The reputation took precedence over the cause and the people it serves, and that is the bit that has to be challenged in the future.

But if you look at the sector as a whole, we have organisations who are brilliant at safeguarding, who live and breathe it.

For example, with the children’s charities and charities working with people with disabilities there are strong safeguarding practices, excellent leadership, great policies and processes.

However, it is not consistent across the entire sector. What we need to do as a sector is improve the consistency and perhaps get some of the charities that are particularly good at this to bring forward the ones that have thought about it less.

Do you think large donors need to take a more active role in the organisations they give to?

I think there are two elements to that, but the short answer is yes.

Donors should know about and be happy with the processes and policies that organisations have in place, and most of them will do that. It is no bad thing if those processes are reviewed because of that and donors make sure that organisations are achieving high standards.

However, the second element is there is a responsibility on donors to recognise that all this costs money. You need to invest in these processes, invest in training and communicating how this works and developing skills within organisations.

There has to be an understanding that that money must come from somewhere and this concept where funding is project-led and does not include scope for funding core function is problematic. Investment is needed in infrastructure, in administration, and that is not a waste of money.

This is part of making sure that donated money will deliver the most effective front-line services possible. Donors have a responsibility to check, but they also have a responsibility to support.

Following Oxfam, you tweeted: ‘If we want charities to be transparent – and we do – we are unfortunately going to hear more about things going wrong.’ Is total transparency the key to restoring trust?

Openness and transparency are important. However, as a sector we have been a bit guilty of allowing misconception about how we operate over the years. There is a sense of: ‘Do not worry about the workings because the end result is good.’

But we need to look at the part in the middle. Transparency and openness matter, but understanding also matters.

One of the challenges we have is around areas such as reporting things that go wrong, particularly if there is a climate of fear. People do not model best practice when they are afraid. People do not ’fess up to things if they are afraid and actually we need to be better at understanding the wider context.

Going back to my ‘zero tolerance, but not always zero incidents’ comment from earlier, just because organisations are reporting problems does not mean that they are bad. The ones that report are probably the ones that are the best at it.

“The charities that report are probably the ones that are the best at dealing with problems”

So I think we need consistency in reporting and this is a role for the Charity Commission. The commission needs to ensure there is that consistency, with everybody working to the same understanding and a level playing field so that organisations are not penalised for coming forward.

There was an interesting and welcome statement from the commission which said, alongside looking at the charities who are reporting, it is also going to be looking at charities who are not reporting in areas where you would expect them to.

Reporting is not a bad thing. Reporting is good, but we need to understand – and we need to do more to help the public understand – that dynamic. Reporting is all part of the way we handle these problems and try to prevent them happening again.

Have you seen a positive reaction from the sector following this scandal?

Absolutely. The charity sector is amazing in so many ways. And one is that it is good at looking hard at itself; we are a sector that has a strong history of self-inspection.

The vast majority of charities do fantastic and vital work in difficult circumstances. People in the sector are genuinely shocked and horrified when this kind of thing is revealed because it does not resonate with their general day-to-day experience of charities.

So charities are definitely reacting. The chief executives I see on a regular basis 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, for example the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements.

They are addressing aspects such as making sure that their employees and volunteers understand it is okay to come forward and they will be supported, that leaders will personally call out inappropriate behaviour.

That then filters down and throughout the organisation. I think the charity sector is responding really positively.

How do charities work harder to explain their mission to the public and remind them of the good that the vast majority do?

How we communicate the impact of our work as a sector is a real challenge.

Again, a lot of charities are good at it on an individual basis, but we are less good at that on a sector-wide basis – articulating the value of charities as a whole to society and showing people the results of their donations, instead of purely asking for money.

Every charity has to ask for money because otherwise we do not get money. But alongside that, we need to be better at explaining what we will do with money when it is donated. This is the difference your donation will make and this is the impact our organisation is having on the world.

Charities only exist because of the generosity and support of the public, so we need to balance those two forms of communication – the ‘ask’ and the ‘answer’ – so that the public gets a sense of the impact from their contribution.

“Of course the end result is critical but we could do more to explain how we arrive there”

And part of this comes back to my comments earlier about making sure infrastructure is not neglected and the public understands why charities need to spend money on it. The language we have used has sort of ‘fudged’ a bit how it all works.

For example: ‘100% of your donation will go to the front line.’ There is a lot more involved in achieving that end goal.

Of course the end result is critical but we could do more to explain how we arrive there. How we deliver the services is just as important because that is what will give us the biggest impact.

There is a quote I like about overheads: ‘Overheads in charities are like blood pressure. Too high is bad for you, but too low is not good for you either.’

We need to generate a sensible understanding of the fact that delivering good services means a level of administrative cost and that is actually a positive thing.

ACEVO’s vision is to ‘see great leaders making the biggest difference’. Are great leaders now more important?

Great leadership has always been important. I do not think there is anything unique about our time now that means that need is somehow greater, but I do think the pressures on civil society leaders are probably more intense than they have been in the past.

Regulation, financial issues, rising demand on services, limited resources, the changes we need to be thinking about in terms of digital technology, and the level of media scrutiny are all huge pressures.

Oxfam certainly demonstrated an incredibly intense and, almost, alarming level of media scrutiny. Alongside that is the added element of social media.

All these things build up huge pressure on civil society leaders and so they need qualities that are perhaps different to the qualities they might have needed in the past.

Resilience is a big one, but also agility, accountability and authenticity. I also think today’s civil society leaders need to be quite brave.

But I see all of that in spades in the people I come across every day, and that is why ACEVO is here: to support, develop and represent the amazing people in this sector. As an organisation how are you looking to help and develop these leaders?

One of the things we are really looking at the moment is the role of leaders in modelling the right behaviour, their role in organisational culture, and creating, embedding and communicating values.

Alongside that, we are looking at technology and how we help leaders understand the opportunities that digital technology brings.

We also do a lot of work around resilience. We have various helplines and mechanisms that people can come to us and get support from when things are tough. And we are a network, so we spend a lot of time connecting peers with each other.

One of the great things about ACEVO is that it means if you are a chief executive of a charity or social enterprise, you are not alone if you are part of our organisation.

I am interested for your thoughts on Baroness Tina Stowell being appointed as the new chair of the Charity Commission.

ACEVO has been critical of the process of appointing the chair, and I still stand by that. I do think it needs reviewing and changing, but Baroness Stowell is in place now and she looks like she will be good.

We are looking forward to working with her as a person; none of the issues we have talked about has ever been about her as an individual.

We still need to have these conversations about the process of selecting the chair for the next time round, however.

Do you think the government can better support the charitable sector?

There has been some criticism around [parliamentary under secretary of state for sport and civil society] Tracey Crouch MP having too wide a remit to be able to support charities effectively.

I had a chat with Tracey about this and she said her brief is no bigger than the average. Tracey is absolutely committed to civil society. She understands the sector, she believes in it, and that is a really positive thing.

“I do think the pressures on civil society leaders are more intense than they have been in the past”

One of the things we are quite excited about is the consultation she has launched on a new civil society strategy.

This is a piece of work that will look at the relationship between government and the charity sector and how that can be strengthened and improved, and what the sector needs from government and what government’s expectations of the sector are.

That will be a really important piece of work and it is something we are engaging with and encouraging our members to engage with. It will set the tone going forward for the relationship between government and civil society and how we work better together.

What happens next for the voluntary sector?

The sector is more needed than ever. One of the interesting things will be the role of the charity sector post-Brexit.

The whole Brexit debate and referendum has revealed fissures within our society and I think the voluntary sector is going to be really important in that healing process.

Civil society has a huge, important role in determining what kind of country we want to be post-Brexit and that is an important focus for us going forward.

Interview by Henry Ker, editor of Governance and Compliance

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