Last year, Brexit dominated headlines. Reeling in from the wrath of the referendum, 2017 was very much a year of ifs and buts. Whilst 2018 has not been any less uncertain, it has simultaneously been a year this sector is unlikely to forget.
Brexit was well and truly trumped this year by safeguarding (or lack of). It became the new buzzword – the topic at the forefront of every conference, seminar and public speech. It was an issue that started with a news story and quickly spiralled into an endemic sector crisis.
Of course it all started with Oxfam. In February this year, Oxfam was accused of covering up for senior aid workers, who allegedly used prostitutes while working in earthquake-hit Haiti. According to a 2011 report seen by The Times, Oxfam allowed three men to resign from their positions and sacked four male employees for gross misconduct, after they launched an inquiry into sexual exploitation, bullying and intimidation.
The newspaper revealed one of the men who was granted resignation without disciplinary action was the charity’s country director in Haiti, Roland van Hauwermeiren, who had admitted to using prostitutes at the property rented for him by Oxfam with charitable funds. The incidents, which allegedly took place shortly after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, were raised by a whistle-blower who claimed the men had partaken in “sex parties” at the residence.
Oxfam subsequently launched an inquiry into the allegations, which also included the downloading of pornography, and noted there was a “culture of impunity”, that meant other members of staff didn’t feel they were able to speak up about the inappropriate incidents.
Naturally, following the revelations, Oxfam was accused of helping to cover up the scandal, by allowing Hauwermeiren to resign before the investigation had closed. But Oxfam certainly didn’t sit back and take it. After having its name branded across almost every newspaper possible, it took a number of steps to react appropriately to the allegations.
The first in a series of responses from Oxfam came in the form of a ‘package of measures’ unveiled by the charity’s chair, Caroline Thomson. In a statement published shortly after the story hit the headlines, Thomson said she “shares the anger and shame that behaviour like that highlighted in 2011 happened in our organisation”.
“In the words of our chief executive Mark Goldring, we are ashamed of what happened. We apologise unreservedly. We have made big improvements since 2011 and today I commit that we will improve further.”
However, no package of measures could prevent the charity from suffering any immediate effects. Within a matter of days, the charity had lost over 7,000 regular donors, later resulting in a considerable amount of cuts, reportedly worth £16 million.
The charity’s chief executive has also since announced he will be stepping down from the post, welcoming CIVICUS chief Danny Sriskandarajahr to the role instead. Upon the announcement, Goldring said he believed “fresh vision and energy” were required to shape Oxfam’s future as it implements the lessons learned from its past safeguarding mistakes.
Further reputational issues
Oxfam wasn’t the only charity to suffer a blow to its reputation, however. Save the Children’s handling of allegations of misconduct and harassment against its staff also became a topic of interest this year.
The charity was under public scrutiny after it emerged concerns had been raised about inappropriate comments made by former chief executive Justin Forsyth. Two trustees carried out two separate investigations into complaints made by three female employees that resulted in an “unreserved apology” from Forsyth, according to a Save the Children statement in February.
Save the Children subsequently made public details of two reviews of behaviour and culture at the charity, after leaked extracts were published by the BBC. This found failures in the way the complaints had been handed and was critical of the management culture at the time, finding “evidence of uncomfortable and/or unsafe behaviour towards colleagues at Save the Children UK”.
The charity also established an independent review in February, led by organisational ethics expert Dr Suzanne Shale”, into its workplace culture and met with the Commission at the time, as well as over 2015/16, to discuss allegations of harassment and misconduct.
Following both safeguarding failures, the Charity Commission was quick to set out steps to improve safeguarding among the charity sector. The regulator said it had concerns that Oxfam may not have “fully and frankly” disclosed material details about the allegations at the time in 2011, its handling of the incidents since, and the impact that these have both had on public trust and confidence.
The Commission’s chief executive, Helen Stephenson met with the Secretary of State for International Development in February and claimed they both agreed that charities need to do more to ensure high standards of safeguarding and set the right culture and tone at the top and are committed to ensuring that this is the case.
“It is vital that trustees set a culture within their charity that prioritises safeguarding so that it is safe for those affected to come forward and report incidents and concerns with the assurance they will be handled sensitively and properly by charities,” she said.
“Full and frank disclosure to the regulator and the relevant authorities, nationally and internationally, is also key. Everybody has the right to be safe, and the public rightly expects charities to be safe and trusted places for all who they come into contact with.”
Civil society strategy
This year, the sector also witnessed the introduction of the government’s new Civil Society Strategy, which unveiled a number of changes to “strengthen the organisations, which hold our society together”.
Some of the government’s main announcements included releasing £20m from dormant charitable assets and placing the funds into grassroots community organisations. The inactive funds will also be plugged into the improvement of the take-up of the Social Value Act.
Upon announcing the consultation for the new strategy, Minister for sport and civil society, Tracey Crouch said the strategy is an opportunity to “explore ways to build partnerships between public sector bodies and charities, to mobilise resources and expertise and find new solutions to the problems the charity sector faces.
“It will reaffirm the value that government places on civil society. It will explore what more government can do to support its work,” Crouch said.
The strategy also pledged to strengthen corporate social responsibility by setting up a new Leadership Group with senior figures from business, investment and social sectors. It also promises to ensure charity trustees reflect the communities they serve.
Digital also featured heavily in the strategy, with the government pledging to launch regional pilots to trial creative ways of involving people in local democracy, such as through online polls for community decisions.
Following the announcement in the strategy, the government also announced plans to grant £1m to charities in need of support for digital skills, which Jeremy Wright, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said will fund training to help charities develop a better understanding of how technology can make it easier for them to achieve their goals.
A separate Charity Digital Code was also published in the latter part of this year, designed to provide charities with practical advice on incorporating technology into their work.
A need for the Code was recognised following the Lloyds Bank UK Business Digital Index 2017, which showed only 48 per cent of charities have full basic digital skills, and 50 per cent of charity leaders lack confidence in introducing digital change.
In other news this year, Tracey Crouch resigned from her role as charities minister due to a delay in changes to betting rules.
The former minister for sport, civil society and loneliness, who is responsible for wide range of cultural issues including charities, said it is with “great sadness” to have resigned from “one of the best jobs in government”.
The resignation follows reports of Crouch’s ‘fury’ after the government made an announcement in the Budget to delay plans to cut the maximum stake for fixed odds betting terminals from £100 down to £2.
Crouch, along with former Culture Secretary, Matt Hancock, reportedly pushed hard for this policy, which was designed to reduce the negative impact excessive gambling can have on society.
Following Crouch’s departure, Mims Davies, who is the MP for Eastleigh, was unveiled as her successor, taking on the wide-range of responsibilities the role involves, including sport, charities, horse racing, the National Lottery and society lotteries. The role also now involves work on loneliness.
Despite calls for the role to be split up, with many charity leaders arguing civil society requires a role of its own, there is still no sign of the position changing.
Davies was previously a minister in the Wales Office and has been a government whip since the beginning of the year. In 2017, she ran the London Marathon in aid of Cardiac Risk in the Young, raising over £1,000. She is also a trustee for military charity, Building Heroes.
Commenting on the appointment, ACEVO CEO, Vicky Browning, said: “It is great for the sector that we have a minister who has demonstrated her commitment and passion for charities by running the marathon in aid of a charity and by holding a trustee position in a small armed forces charity.
“Like her predecessor, it seems she will not need to be convinced of the value of charities but, also like her predecessor Mims Davies has a large brief and it is important that she demonstrates her belief in the value of charities by prioritising the implementation of the civil society strategy.”