Why the Oxfam scandal is relevant to all charities

We’ve heard a lot about the scandal involving Oxfam and other aid charities lately. But is this just about Oxfam, or aid charities generally, or is it actually relevant to any charity, including those just working in the UK? I’d argue it definitely is.

The Charity Commission is now investigating the specifics of the Oxfam case, and we’ll have to see what the results are. DfID is also working with aid charities to clarify and strengthen safeguarding standards and procedures. In the meantime, all charities should be looking at their own policies and procedures to make sure they’re on the right track.

Charities should be driven by their ethics first

Charities have always been at the forefront of fighting for vulnerable people, independent of whether a particular behaviour was legal, accepted, tolerated or not. If people were in vulnerable situations, charities stood up and changed culture and policy. So our ethics have to be reflected not just in our policies and procedures, but our behaviour and culture.

Charity boards, leadership teams, staff and volunteers should examine ethics regularly, and consider how they relate to everyday goings on. Are your behaviours in line with your ethics? What in the world has changed that means you need to re-evaluate or re-think behaviours? Clearly issues like sexual abuse, sexual harassment and staff or volunteers paying for sex are issues charities need to consider.

Safeguarding should be high priority – including sexual exploitation

Charities, regulators and government are now are looking again at safeguarding and how it can be improved. There is even going to be a new safeguarding body for the aid charity sector. Civil Society Minister Tracey Crouch highlighted that all charities in the UK must take recent concerns about safeguarding seriously, not only those working in aid sector. Helen Stephenson, Chief Executive of the Charity Commission said that charities must address their own safeguarding challenges. The technicalities are still a bit in flux, but what does this mean for charities now?

All charities and in particular their trustees have the obligation to report any serious incidents to the Charity Commission. This is how they show that they are dealing with safeguarding issues that affect their charity. What is a serious incident? It is ‘an adverse event, whether actual or alleged, which results in or risks significant harm to a charity’s work, beneficiaries or reputation; loss of a charity’s money or assets; damage to a charity’s property.’

So you need to be aware of risk areas, which are specific to your charity. Maybe you work directly with a particular vulnerable group either as beneficiaries or volunteers, so it’s relatively clear. However, there could be other, less obvious areas of risk – like is your building or property secure? If not, could people exploit that space for abusive activity?

There are lot of behaviours that can count as abuse (see page 25 here for a whole list). But sexual exploitation, one form of which is prostitution, is about abuse of power (including economic power) over people, regardless of which particular vulnerability and status they have (independent for example of their age and gender, being a beneficiary, working for your charity, or even encountering your charity workers in their free time etc.). Regardless of the legal jurisdiction (and noting that the 2015 Human Trafficking Act made paying for sex illegal in Northern Ireland, whereas unwittingly paying for sex with a victim of trafficking is an offence with strict liability in England and Wales), the role of charities is to set best practice standards when it comes to standing up for the vulnerable and safeguarding against exploitation.

The scope of safeguarding is changing too

Safeguarding should be an area of importance for charities – and it may be changing both in definition and scope. Leading charity lawyers at BWB could not have explained it better:

“Recently Government has, in effect but not in legislation, broadened the scope of what it considers to comprise ‘safeguarding’ in the charity and humanitarian sector to include not only children and vulnerable adults, as we know it, but so as to also encompass the duty of care that charities may be found to owe to other groups in the context of their operations (including when their representatives are off duty): to their staff and volunteers; beneficiaries generally; and those who live and work in the areas in which they operate.“

And the Oxfam scandal has highlighted that charities need to think again about sexual exploitation conducted by your staff and trustees – even when they are off duty, so to speak.

Getting practical: What can we do about it?

Whatever the ethical issue might be, the first step is to acknowledge it head on. Any charity can set the right policies, send clear messages, and create the right culture. There are plenty of simple but concrete things you can do:

  • Introduce a safeguarding policy or review the one you have. It doesn’t need to cover every eventuality. Describe what vulnerable people your charity staff and trustees might interact with. Think through where and how can you might encounter them. Spell out examples of behaviour by staff, volunteers, or trustees that contradicts your charity’s core values, would be unacceptable, and could present a serious incident. Make sure you consider sexual exploitation. Guidance can be accessed here.
  • Have an effective whistle-blower policy that explains the procedures and gives examples of what kind of issues people can bring to the forefront – include behaviour that violates your charity’s ethics as well. Guidance can be accessed here.
  • Organise a board discussion, maybe on your next away day: Boards need to review risk regularly. What are your charity’s values and what are the risk areas from a safeguarding perspective? Are the charity’s policies and procedures up to scratch? This should also include a reference as to how the scope of safeguarding has expanded and how it relates to sexual exploitation of vulnerable people. Guidance can be accessed here.
  • Build a positive culture around your ethics that links to policies and procedures. This is harder but charities have a head start – your staff and volunteers should already be motivated by ethics and values and doing the right thing! Encourage people to champion them and make them feel safe so that they can address issues internally and externally. Boards should lead the way.

The good news is that while it might take some time and some focus, this needn’t cost you anything. Being able to say what you’ve done and why, and being clear about it only strengthens your charity going forward.


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