Oxfam – How Effective Safeguarding is Imperative to Good Governance and Protecting Your Reputation
If issues around safeguarding and whistleblowing were languishing half way down your ‘to do’ list and the priorities that the board should be focusing on, then the recent international headlines surrounding the Oxfam sexual misconduct scandal, should leave companies, and charities in particular, reassessing what they need to focus on.
Ironically, the charity’s lukewarm attempts to investigate allegations and ignore staff attempts at whistleblowing, presumably to protect their image and reputation, has spectacularly backfired leaving their reputation in tatters and the very real possibility of their government funding being withdrawn (a staggering £32m per year of public money).
The facts of this case have been substantially covered throughout the media this month and so we won’t go into them in detail here, but from a governance point of view we look at how the issues around safeguarding and whistleblowing went so horribly wrong…
Safeguarding has been a hot topic in the charitable and not for profit sectors for some time now and it is difficult to understand how it could have failed so badly at Oxfam, one of the UK’s biggest and well-known charities.
Questions on moral leadership and whether the senior executives and Trustees did enough to protect their beneficiaries, and it turns out, their staff and volunteers, have been rife. The charity had been alerted to allegations of abuse in Chad as far back as 2006. And although actions and investigations were undertaken at that time, and again following allegations in Haiti in 2011, it appears that further whistleblowing attempts made to senior management and Trustees had not been taken seriously enough. Although isolated investigations had been conducted by Oxfam, it seems that the problem was systematic and did not address the poor level of safeguarding charity-wide.
Although the Chief Executive claimed that “we did take them [the allegations] seriously and we responded on many different fronts – the records checking was one of them, training was another, the promotion of the helpline was another” he also admitted that the response did not go far enough and more resources [for the Safeguarding Team] should have been put in place faster, to deal with the allegations and prevent abuse.”
In an attempt to ensure that safeguarding is properly conducted and addressed, the Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Mordaunt MP, has advised that she will be “writing to all UK charities which receive UK aid, insisting that they spell out the steps they are taking to ensure their safeguarding policies are fully in place and work properly, declare all safeguarding concerns they are aware of, and confirm they have referred all concerns they have about specific cases and individuals to the relevant authorities”.
Good safeguarding is such a key part of corporate governance as it is directly linked to other key governance systems such as risk management, whistleblowing, corporate social responsibility, company culture, reputational management and in turn, to investment relations and overall profitability (investors and charitable donors are unlikely to invest/donate money to organisations that fail to protect staff, volunteers and beneficiaries).
It is absolutely essential that all charities, companies, and not-for-profits working with children and vulnerable persons, regardless of whether they receive UK aid or work overseas, have robust safeguarding measures in place, including effective policies, procedures, training, monitoring and reporting.
No doubt, following this scandal in the aid sector, new measures and requirements will be announced by the Government and Charity Commission in due course, but in the meantime, organisations should carry out the following actions to ensure that they are providing effective safeguarding:
- Ensure that your Safeguarding Policies are effective, up to date, and go far enough to ensure the most vulnerable people in society are protected (note: policies are important but are only the very first step to ensuring effective safeguarding)
- Ensure that the policy and procedures are communicated to all trustees, management, staff members and volunteers
- Ensure that frequent and appropriate training is provided
- Ensure that Safeguarding Teams or those responsible for Safeguarding are sufficiently resourced
- Ensure that there are clear escalation procedures, investigation procedures and consequences in place for allegations against safeguarding
- Ensure that the board is frequently updated and time is set aside for monitoring safeguarding issues across the organisation – in the form of quarterly reporting/annual reviews and escalated reports of safeguarding allegations and investigations as appropriate
- Ensure that appropriate risk management processes are in place and ensure that safeguarding features on Risk Management registers as appropriate
- Conduct an internal audit/review of Safeguarding within your organisation to ensure its robustness and to prevent reputational damage
Our blog in November 2017 covered Whistleblowing and the importance of appropriate procedures being in place to ensure any wrongdoing within an organisation is swiftly dealt with to help maintain confidence and avoid damage to an organisation’s reputation.
It is clear, that despite whistleblowing procedures being in place at Oxfam, that such instances were either not taken seriously or the investigation and responses did not go far enough. To read our whistleblowing blog first published in November, please click here.