Hands up: Does the sector have a transparency problem?

Allegations of harassment, bullying, and racism have been rife among the charity sector in recent months, highlighting internal issues that have been improperly addressed. Is a culture of fear causing a transparency problem?
Two years ago, CLIC Sargent received sector-wide praise for its annual report, entitled ‘Hands up, we’re not perfect’. The children’s cancer charity specifically used its annual impact report as an opportunity to admit its imperfections, highlight areas in which it had not met targets and to show donors how it was making improvements.

This tactic was extremely successful. The charity won awards, generous press coverage and its CEO at the time, Kate Lee, became renowned for a uniquely authentic leadership style. But in recent months, many areas of the sector have fallen under the spotlight for failing to adopt such a transparent approach to reporting problems.

Among these was the Chartered Institute of Fundraising (CIoF), which came under fire this Spring for its handling of sexual misconduct allegations, which some sector figures claimed weren’t addressed “swiftly or effectively”.

An investigation was also recently launched by the House of Commons International Development Commission into racism in the aid sector. It followed the committee’s recent investigation into sexual abuse and exploitation in the aid sector, which found that “power dynamics relating to racism and sexism may have impeded efforts to implement effective measures to combat sexual exploitation and abuse”.

Meanwhile, power dynamics and oppression were highlighted in research conducted by Save the Children UK, which found a third of its workers feel excluded or oppressed, with between 20% and 30% of people in the charity saying they feel “excluded in some way” – an issue relating to structural oppression within the organisation.

Reactive or proactive?

Many organisations – the aforementioned included – have chosen to publicly address such issues. The Chartered Institute of Fundraising (CIoF), issued a public apology to the women involved and has since launched an action plan for properly addressing complaints.

Barnardo’s is another charity to have pledged to take action after a racism scandal blighted its fundraising department, while Versus Arthritis published a statement claiming it will act on the findings of a report into allegations of racism and bullying at the charity. Westway Trust, which supported victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, commissioned an independent review, which found it had a “long term culture of institutional racism” against the area’s African Caribbean community and the NCVO pledged to take action to tackle racism after admitting it had a “structurally racist organisation”.

But while a flood of statements and apologies relating to allegations of misconduct show some signs of progression, many in the sector have argued they also appear to be ‘reactive’ rather than proactive. After all, if such issues were dealt with and reported on appropriately at the time, would there even be a need to issue such statements at all?

Dr Colin Alexander, a senior lecturer in political communications at Nottingham Trent University has been researching extensively on the critical understandings of the role of charity within society. He argues it is “worrying” to see the “extent to which some charities have gone to preserve themselves and their income streams – PR crisis management et al – rather than being transparent and humble over their derelictions”.

“Indeed, where image preservation has taken precedent, charities can very easily be accused of behaving in a similar way to the arrogant corporations looking out for themselves before anything or anyone else,” he says.

A fear of making mistakes

So why do charities fail to speak up about mistakes at the time said mistakes are made? Rachel Kirby Rider, CEO of CLIC Sargent suggests a lack of public trust in recent years has led to fears of losing donors.

“The last few years have been really difficult for the charity sector and, with the erosion of public trust, many charities have felt that upholding their reputation and not doing anything that could jeopardise donor support has been paramount,” she says.

“That has led to a culture of fear of making mistakes, which has often resulted in a not-pushing innovation or a test and learn approach, opting for short-term returns rather than systemic change. The safe option.” Kirby-Rider believes the funding model perpetuates this, with leaders fearing funders will pull funding if they disclose when things go wrong with projects and delivery, “which discourages a research and development approach”.

Alex Feis-Bryce, CEO of SurvivorsUK, says the fear can be particularly prevalent among large charities, which are more likely to attract the attention of a ‘hostile media’. “As well all know, the third sector can be a ruthless and cutthroat world with charities and charity leaders under huge and constant pressure to secure the funding to meet the ever-increasing demands for our services,” he says.

“For some of the more high-profile charities in the public eye, with an often hostile media, I have no doubt that the fear of reputational damage and the knock-on effect for funding and even survival, could create a culture of silence where very significant issues are dealt with internally to avoid repercussions.

Michelle Vickers, CEO of the Head & Neck Cancer Foundation, agrees with Kirby-Rider and Feis Bryce, suggesting that the public eye can certainly affect how charities address any errors or irregularities. “Most organisations receive no statutory funding,” she says. “We rely on the public for our very existence, and they enable us to keep doing amazing things.”

Opening up

While failure to go public with structural issues might temporarily deter reputational damage, the effects on those involved – particularly victims of sexual assault, bullying and/or racism – can be both harmful and long-lasting.

“The pressure of survival and avoiding reputational damage, though very real, is never a justification for brushing racism or sexual violence under the carpet,” Feis-Bryce says. “A culture of silence and fear of speaking out creates a fertile ground for sexual violence to exist and even become institutionalised – we’ve seen this in religious institutions, football, politics and so on. Safeguarding isn’t just about having the right policies in place, it’s about people feeling empowered to speak out without repercussions.

“With regards to racism in the sector, as a white person who has always been an anti-racist campaigner, I’ve come to realise that that’s not enough. We need to reflect on our own privilege and reprogramme ourselves to challenge the structures, which prop up white supremacy throughout society. I hear too often people in positions of power being affronted or becoming defensive when they’re told they need to more – it’s as if they’re scared to show humility and listen for fear that it will be an interpreted as them accepting that they or their organisations are racist. They’re part of the problem.”

Provoking a welcome response

SurvivorsUK is currently working on a programme of ‘cultural humility’ training for its staff, which aims to improve how its people work with each other and with clients. “We’re also improving and formalising the role of service users in decision-making. This was based on an acknowledgement that we weren’t doing this as good as we should be. I think humility is central to effective leadership,” Feis-Bryce explains.

Other organisations are showcasing some progressive signs, too. Over one hundred leaders from across the sector have already committed to ACEVO and the CIoF’s Racial Diversity Principles, demonstrating proactivity in building more inclusive organisations. Meanwhile, a number of charities, including Oxfam, have set up internal safeguarding committees and have established whistleblowing hotlines, allowing staff to make complaints more easily. Leaders have refused to speak at events that don’t accurately represent the diversity of the sector and have commissioned independent examiners to investigate working life and highlight its flaws.

“Donors are people too”

Good intentions and productive actions don’t diminish the fear of damage, however. Kirby-Rider understands it is a careful balance to strike, but stresses that the response from donors to CLIC Sargent’s honest impact report was “overwhelmingly positive”.

“Donors are people too and they understand that a charity of our size, focused on trying to support as many children and young people with cancer as possible that depends entirely on donations, is never going to get everything right; in fact it would be a surprise if any organisation, of any size, can get everything right,” she says.

“We are dependent on the support of our donors so we think it’s important to treat them with respect which means being open and honest with them, even if that means we might get push back or some criticism.”

Vickers also recalls a time of extreme honesty, which resulted in positive feedback. “Many years ago, I worked for an organisation that failed to meet its well-publicised targets. The CEO at the time faced this failure directly, took responsibility for it and whilst highlighting some of the positives of the organisation, laid out plans to succeed. This honest (and brave) approach was mostly received as a positive step forward. Within the organisation, it felt like we had been knocked down but had come out of our corner fighting, with strong and supportive leadership.”

Learning from mistakes

Moving forward, Feis-Bryce suggests the whole sector, including funders, must “strive to create a climate where charities can be honest and open about where they can improve without being penalised by funders”.

A strong communications strategy is central to greater transparency, too, Vickers adds. “A communications strategy that is honest and transparent builds trust, not only with existing supporters but also potential supporters.

“Without that trust, there is no basis on which to grow and nurture a positive relationship. This is particularly important now when all charities are experiencing funding challenges. Every donor wants reassurance that their money is being properly utilised. We must give them that transparency.”

But ultimately, Kirby-Ryder believes in a need to stop fearing mistakes. “We are a values-led organisation so if we were to truly uphold the brave and confident values, we had to stop fearing making mistakes.

“On the day we launched our impact report, we received lots of positive reactions from across the sector and have spoken to a lot of other charities who were interested in understanding the reaction we got from supporters.

“The biggest surprise to us was that putting an honest list of the things we didn’t get right or know we need to do more on, was seen as ‘brave’. It’s something we should all do. We want the young people and families we support and all our supporters, donors and volunteers to see us as open and honest and if that means putting our hands up on the things we haven’t got right, then we shall.”

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