Safeguarding: why charities need to act now

Warnings about safeguarding are rife and charities can’t afford to wait to take action.

Around a year ago, in September 2017, the Charity Commission noticed a worrying trend among the charities it regulates. The charity watchdog found there was “significant under-reporting of problems”, which “puts charities at potential risk of further harm, including reputation damage”.

“Too often, our casework shows that an incident could and should have been reported to us at a much earlier stage,” said Sarah Atkinson, the commission’s director of policy and communication at the Commission, in a statement at the time.

A month later, this warning was enhanced further when the Commission issued an alert to all recently registered military and veterans’ charities to remind them of the importance of safeguarding after the regulator found “a concerning lack of safeguarding policies and practices in some of the charities reviewed”.

The alarm was sounded again in December when all charities were told they needed to both report any previous incidents and to review their safeguarding policy and procedures.

To further emphasise the importance of safeguarding, the regulator accompanied this alert
with the publication of a new safeguarding strategy, which made it “clear that safeguarding is a key governance priority for all charities, not just those working with groups traditionally considered vulnerable.” It would appear those warnings fell on deaf ears – in some quarters at least.

In early February, The Times published a front-page story claiming Oxfam’s staff had paid for sex when delivering aid in Haiti. As shocking as this was for the public, for people who worked within the aid sector, the revelations were nothing new – sexual exploitation and poor safeguarding had been going on for years. Sixteen years, according to Asmita Naik, author of a UN report into safeguarding.

The Oxfam story was the first, but by no means the last, to make the headlines. Initial attempts by Save the Children to persuade the public that it wasn’t guilty of the same mistakes backfired spectacularly after its chair and former chief executive were accused of sexual harassment, resulting in resignations, public apologies and the adoption of new policies and procedures.

It has also since discovered that 28 per cent of its employees have experienced discrimination or harassment, including “a small number of incidents of gender harassment and unwanted sexual attention” in the last three years, although no evidence of sexual coercion. Staff are now being consulted on a new plan to ensure improvements in working culture.

Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) had to apologise after reports emerged of sexual harassment and misconduct by its aid workers; volunteers at Restless Development were accused of having inappropriate relationships with local students in South Africa; and at ShelterBox, it was reported three people had resigned or been dismissed after allegations of sexual misconduct.

Unfortunately, this is not an issue restricted to overseas aid organisations.

In April, a major investigation was launched into the RNIB and its residential children’s centre, the Pears Centre for Specialist Learning, after allegations of “sexually abusive practice”, resulting in the resignation of its chief executive, Sally Harvey.

The sexual health charity, Yorkshire Mesmac, was found to have “left issues of serious regulatory concern unchecked and unmanaged” after a former trustee was convicted of child sex offences, while Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire was stripped of its responsibilities to protect children after allegations of sexual abuse.

We also can’t forget Kids Company, where serious safeguarding concerns were raised in relation to vulnerable children’s living and care arrangements. And it’s probably best not to mention the horror of the Presidents Club.

Trust and confidence take a hit

For the overseas development sector, the safeguarding scandals have impacted both income and trust. A quick look at the accounts of both Oxfam and Save the Children and you will see a reduction in funding; something they have both admitted is partially the result of the safeguarding scandals.

Meanwhile, figures from nfpSynergy show that trust in overseas development organisations has declined, unlike most other sectors where it has risen.

“Any scandal such as safeguarding only seems to affect overseas charities because it plays into existing prejudices,” explains Joe Saxton, founder of nfpSynergy. “People use the stories as justification for why the aid budget is too big, or why people shouldn’t give to international charities. Had it happened to a cancer or social welfare charity, I suspect people would have been more inclined to give them the benefit of doubt.”

Thankfully though, the safeguarding crises haven’t (yet) had the same impact on wider trust and confidence as previous media scandals did.

“Unlike the fundraising or chief executive salaries stories, the safeguarding issue doesn’t appear to have had as big an impact on trust in the sector overall,” Saxton adds. “This is possibly because it’s perceived to be an Oxfam or overseas development issue, rather than a generic charity issue,” he says.

Influenced by the Oxfam scandal and the constant stream of stories that followed, the sector sat up and took notice. Charities finally began to do as the Commission had asked six months earlier and report their serious safeguarding incidents.

An update from the Commission’s interim safeguarding taskforce – set up to respond to the fallout from the Oxfam story – confirmed that 620 safeguarding-related reports had been received in April and May 2018 compared to 196 during the same period in 2017. Overall, 1,152 reports of serious safeguarding incidents were reported between February and May 2018 – compared to 1,210 during the whole of 2016/17 and 1,580 during 20187/18. Some 734 new cases were opened as a result.

Importantly, the sector has begun to think more seriously about how to address their safeguarding shortcomings.

Certainly, the overseas development sector accepted this was something they urgently needed to resolve. With Bond leading the charge, a set of guiding principles was created; a safeguarding for development event held; and a letter published in The Times, which highlighted the sector’s commitment to taking action.

A series of working groups have been set up to drive forward better practice across four thematic areas, including accountability to people NGOs work with; organisational culture; the employment cycle; and reports and complaints mechanisms.

The findings of a report by the government’s International Development Committee, which
said that charities had not done enough to deal with instances of sexual abuse and exploitation, were also accepted.

Furthermore, proposals from Save the Children are also being considered. These include the creation of a Global Centre of Excellence for Child Safeguarding in Emergencies; the introduction of mandatory humanitarian passports to ensure rapid deployment of accredited staff during emergencies; the strengthening of Interpol’s global criminal records checking system; and new regulatory standards that ensure all humanitarian agencies have a legal obligation to report any dismissals.

Funders are also looking at how they can help up the ante. Comic Relief, for example, has strengthened its approach to safeguarding when it selects and monitors its grants.

“We’ve introduced new training for assessors, strengthened our conditions and now, with the creation of the safeguarding team, we have increased capacity to allow us to monitor and support our grantees if they face challenges in safeguarding,” says Karen Walker-Simpson, head of safeguarding at Comic Relief.

She adds: “We are also considering mechanisms to ensure grantees are ‘accountable to’ us as donors and are looking at how we as donors can be ‘accountable for’ strengthening safeguarding across our grant portfolio and the sector.”

In practice, this means the funder allows grantees to include a safeguarding budget line to ensure resources are available; it provides advice to grantees on an on-going basis; and it has convened other funders – both here in the UK and in the global south – to explore ways to work together that will strengthen safeguarding across the board.

More broadly, the Charity Commission’s recently-established taskforce is to undertake proactive work to ensure prompt and full reporting of serious safeguarding incidents, and will give advice to charities reporting safeguarding incidents on appropriate actions.

“In addition, the team will undertake a ‘deep dive’ of existing serious incident reporting records to ensure any gaps in full and frank disclosure are identified and necessary follow-up actions, for charities or the regulator, have been completed. We will intervene in serious cases where we are concerned that trustees are not fulfilling their legal duties,” a Commission spokesperson says.

The idea of a code of conduct is also being touted. Similar to the Code of Good Governance, this would set out a number of principles to which any organisation can pledge its commitment, sending a message to the public, supporters and beneficiaries that treating people with respect is a priority for all charities. Putting aside the fact that this should be a given, particularly in charities, the aim is that this will keep safeguarding front of mind.

Best practice means taking action

However, as Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Commission points, you can have all the policies in the world, but they’re useless without the right culture, values and leadership.

“Policies, procedures and formal systems – vital as they are – do not alone prevent safeguarding incidents, or ensure charities respond appropriately when incidents occur,” she says.

Ann Marie Christian, an independent safeguarding consultant who works with charities, schools and arts organisations, agrees: “Safeguarding is not just about ticking boxes, it should be with you every second of the day. This has to come from the top and work its way through every aspect of a charity.

“I understand why fundraising is the top of most charities’ agenda, but safeguarding should be up there as well. There should be a trustee who has responsibility for safeguarding, an operational safeguarding person who knows about new guidance and what it means and then filters this through the organisation. There should also be someone in HR and marketing who can check every message for safeguarding issues,” she advises.

Importantly, effective safeguarding requires transparency and openness. “People who work for you should feel their concerns will be listened to and respected,” Christian says.

For her, this starts right from the moment a job is advertised through to the moment a staff member chooses to leave. “The application form, the job description, the interview process – emphasising a culture of safeguarding throughout the recruitment process shows that your organisation is vigilant, which not only will help you instil a culture of safer working practices among your employees, but it will help deter people who might want to work for you for the wrong reasons,” she says.

Once someone has been employed, safeguarding should be part of their everyday life at the organisation. “It should be a regular agenda item at team meetings and should form part of people’s appraisals. There should be information displayed prominently around the building that shows people what to do if they have concerns about a beneficiary or member of staff. A bit like #MeToo, the more transparent you are, the more it’s talked about and the more comfortable people are in coming forward,” she says.

However, Christian notes there is sometimes a tension between the ways in which charities reach and work with vulnerable groups and what’s required for effective safeguarding. “When you’re dealing with hard-to-reach people, you can often use more informal approaches, such as operating out of the nine to five and meeting with people outside of official premises, because it’s this that enables you to get the best results. However, these informal approaches can also leave you open to abuse and can allow manipulators easy access to vulnerable people,” she says.

To help mitigate against this risk, it’s important that everyone – particularly the beneficiaries – knows what is expected of charity workers so they can be alert to inappropriate behaviour.

This is something Walker-Simpson at Comic Relief also emphasises. She says that all stakeholders need to be involved in effective safeguarding: the charity, the communities it serves, relevant government agencies, external partners and donors.

“There needs to be a sense of ownership where staff, beneficiaries and others are engaged in developing safeguards. Embedding safeguarding goes way beyond delivering training but instead should include on-going conversations and reflection so that the understanding is internalised,” she says, adding how decisions shouldn’t be made by one individual. “The best decisions engage different opinions and draw on diverse expertise. Shared decision making also reduces the risk of abuse of power.”

Working together in such a way should also help enhance understanding of safeguarding, where improvements could be made, what trends mean and how to respond to these. This, in turn, should help charities and the people they serve feel more comfortable in coming forward to ask for help and enable them to get the assistance they need – before a situation ends up out of control.

What is for certain is that brushing problems under the carpet is not an appropriate response to any kind of safeguarding issue. As nfpSynergy’s Saxton reminds us: “It may not be in the news now, but it will be if you’re not careful. What are the issues that need to be tackled? Because it’s much better to do something it now than wait for it to become a scandal.”

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