Insights

Chris Rose: 5.5 minute read

Can a charity rebuild its reputation after a safeguarding incident?

Just under eighteen months after the initial incident was made public and Oxfam is struggling. They are swimming against a tide of cuts, abuse claims and a new Chief Executive under accusation for covering up an employee’s encounters with sex workers at a previous charity. It is a milestone moment for the global charity in which quests for donations will become increasingly difficult and may lead to further cuts down the line.

For all those that are in receipt of Oxfam projects, we hope that the charity has learnt from the safeguarding incident, will address the serious issues that have emerged, put in appropriate safeguarding measures and continue to support millions of people worldwide.

The majority of workers and volunteers align themselves with Oxfam as they care about people and want to make a positive difference. This is the noble quest for all that work within the charitable sector. It is something that we applaud and try to replicate with our business practices here at OLM.

Where did it all go wrong?

With the advent of the internet, we are all now living in an age where information is at our fingertips. Accountability of all individuals and organisations has increased considerably and this can be only be seen as a positive step forward. Popular radio and TV celebrities and even people’s childhood heroes of the 70s, 80s and 90s have been exposed. Organisations are also rightly falling under the limelight, for failing to create safe environments to operate.

The most high profile of these has been Oxfam. They have emerged as the poster child for the safeguarding campaign, which has claimed many scalps but is yet to reach a conclusion.

The incident emerged last year over allegations that top members of staff at the charity had paid for sex with prostitutes, some of which may have been underage. The most high profile member of staff that was accused, was the charity’s then-director of operations, Roland Van Hauwermeiren. He was alleged to have used prostitutes at a villa rented for him by Oxfam.

Adding to the moral anguish that a man who was a representative in the country was accused of such serious misconduct was the fact that he was paid to be there. The public saw that the donations given were being used by people undeserving of that honour. This was an awakening.

From bad to worse

Over the course of the next year, the investigation passed from the Charity Commission to the government, to the president of Haiti. The ultimate result of which being extreme loss of reputation and ultimately, donations.

As then, Oxfam boss, Mark Goldring and two senior executives were hauled in front of MPs on the 20th February 2018, informing those in attendance that 7,000 people had cancelled their direct debits in the wake of the incident. In less than two weeks, the charity had lost millions in revenue, leaving it with an uphill task to repair its reputation.

Something that the former head of safeguarding, Helen Evans, said recently, will take ‘many, many years to change’. She resigned in 2015, stating that managers within the charity wouldn’t listen to her concerns. She has stated on record that she hopes the recent Charity Commission report is a ‘wake up’ for the sector. 

Can they redeem themselves?

This is the key question. The ‘incident’ has continued to evolve and grow to the point where journalists are hounding around the subject like bloodhounds, waiting for the next morsel to fall. The chief example of this being the current Chief Executive, Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah. He joined the charity less than six months ago and has already found himself hitting the headlines.

For their PR department, it is a nightmare. To look to rebuild the reputation of such a high profile charity against incidents relating to their aid work. It is an uphill struggle. One that keeps being chipped away at from every angle. The Chief Executive story proving to be the most recent of these. However, as we know, Oxfam is not the only charity on trial but they have been the ones in the crosshairs of society.

Through all of these trials, they have kept going, looking to the future, promising to become the charity that the world deserves. This may take time but for all the wrongdoing that has been committed, the charity still operates in 90 countries and helps millions each year. They have been operating since 1942 when a group of concerned citizens founded the organisation with the purpose of helping starving citizens of occupied Greece.

They have a legacy of good deeds, more than 75 years of aid efforts that have saved lives and so will be around for the future. We personally hope that they take this opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past, redress their safeguarding policies and procedures and concentrate on doing what they do best. That being, saving lives and doing so on a global scale. They need to get their heads down and concentrate on making a difference.

Cannot promise that there will never be any safeguarding issues

Caroline Thomson, Chairwoman of Trustees, told Sky News recently that Oxfam ‘can not promise’ that it will never be involved in an incident such as this again. This followed the publishing of a damming report into Oxfam’s handling of the situation. The report by the Charity Commission found that there was a 'culture of tolerating poor behaviour' that permeated beneath the surface.

The report went on to claim that the charity failed to report child abuse claims against some of its staff in Haiti. The report, which was based on an 18-month investigation found that Oxfam had ‘repeatedly fallen below the standards expected’. Going on to say that a culture of tolerating poor behaviour and one that, ‘failed to meet the promises made on safeguarding, ultimately letting everyone down’.

When pressed on the issue, Ms Thomson, said: "I cannot sit here and promise that these sort of incidents will never occur in the future." Going on to say, ”What we need to do is to create the right culture which makes activities such as sexual abuse unthinkable or less thinkable, as well as where people feel safe to report it and that's crucial and that's terribly difficult in the field.”

A dose of reality

It is never going to be popular to say but safeguarding will be something that needs to be considered by all charitable organisations for the foreseeable future. As demonstrated by the failings at Oxfam, mismanagement can taint an organisation to the point where they lose their way. Or, as per the Charity Commission’s, Chief Executive, Helen Stephenson added, "What went wrong in Haiti did not happen in isolation.

Our inquiry demonstrates that, over a period of years, Oxfam's internal culture tolerated poor behaviour, and at times lost sight of the values it stands for."

The issues found at Oxfam are symptoms of a much wider issue and that is effective oversight. When organisations have no-one to watch over them, they can go off the rails and lose direction. By utilising technology and re-addressing processes, whilst promoting diversity in the workplace, you can begin to heal the damage. You can show change, or as Ms Thomson said during her interview, "And then a culture where once it's reported we properly investigate and we properly hold people to account and people lose their jobs over it."

How can technology assist with the process?

Whilst you need the right culture to ensure safeguarding concerns are raised, the right technology ensures that each concern is dealt with effectively.

Progressions in safeguarding technology trends have provided us with the unique opportunity to design systems that can be instantly updated from anywhere, at any time. This in the battle for safeguarding is priceless. If a safeguarding issue occurs, then it can be instantly reported to the team named in the policy. The safeguarding team can then see a complete history of any previous concerns so a well-informed decision can take place.

This can take the time from when a breach occurs to when it is reported from weeks, down to minutes. The benefits of this do not need to be written, they are evident. To remove safeguarding issues entirely is not possible at this time. What we can do is mitigate against the risk of them slipping through the net as much as possible by utilising technology, alongside policies and procedures.

Change occurs when the problem is seen. By utilising technology, you can get to the root of the problem quicker, you can work to ensure you are aware of all risks and report on the progress of investigations. Through this, we can re-enforce to the wider public that whilst safeguarding issues might occur, they are being proactively dealt with.

Conclusion

Safeguarding is not isolated to one organisation or sector. It is a concern for all of us and as much as we would like to assume the best from people, we need to ensure that there are frameworks in place. These policies and procedures will help to hold people accountable for their actions, to show that this type of behaviour is not to be tolerated. Whilst you cannot 100% stop any safeguarding issue from ever occurring in your charity, the culture, processes and systems you put in place will significantly reduce the organisation's risk.  

Can a charity rebuild its reputation after a safeguarding incident?

If you have the appropriate safeguarding steps in place, then the Charity Commission will discover that an issue is an isolated incident and your reputation will begin to be rebuilt. Due to the recent findings by the Charity Commission, Oxfam, unfortunately, will have an uphill struggle. They have already announced 16m of cuts and large scale redundancies, the findings of the Charity Commission report is likely to affect them for years   

The sooner that a safeguarding problem can be reported, the sooner that those responsible can be caught. They can be dealt with, further issues stopped and the victim provided with peace of mind to move on with their lives. The use of technology as an enabler is something that we fully endorse, as abuse in any shape or form, should not be considered as acceptable.

By combining technology, with updated processes and diversity, you can begin to create a culture in which the rights of all are safeguarded. By always keeping your finger on the pulse, you ensure that safeguarding is always investigated in a timely manner, it is never swept under the carpet. By being honest and open, we can tackle intolerant and abhorrent behaviour to ensure that everyone is safeguarded.