What does the Charity Commission’s research into public expectations actually show?

The Charity Commission’s board has appointed itself ‘representatives of the public’ – but the members are hardly representative of modern Britain. The Chair, a former Conservative Leader of the House of Lords, repeatedly leans on commissioned research carried out by Populus about public trust in charities to bolster her argument about the Commission’s role. Yet her sweeping generalisations about what “the public” (as if it were a  monolith) expects of “charities” (as if they were not endlessly diverse) have become detached from the reality of this relatively thin research base.

Insights not highlighted by the CC

Let us pause to remind ourselves of some of the clear insights from this research that the Commission seems not too keen to highlight:

  1. Most of the public have little or no idea what is a charity and what isn’t. A sample of 2000 identified no more than about nine household names when asked what they thought of when they encountered the word “charities”. Populus warned that this limitation must be borne in mind when interpreting what the public think about “charities”. This is a rickety basis for generalisations about what the public expects of charities in general.
  2. The behaviour of charities (as reported by the media) is by no means the only driver of trust or mistrust of charities. Important factors include age : young people (18 to 24) are much more likely to trust charities than those over 55;  and especially familiarity with charities: people are much more likely to trust a charity they know. Another factor now acknowledged by the Commission is the general growth of distrust towards institutions in our society. (The statement in the Introduction to Trust in Charities 2018, that “Trust is earned, or lost, through behaviour” is therefore simplistic.)
  3. Even in the last few scandal-hit years, a majority of the sample (in 2016, the year when the overall measure of trust dipped, it was 67 per cent) has maintained or in a few cases increased their trust in charities. Only a minority, who in general are less familiar with charities, say their trust has decreased.
  4. Only a minority (41 per cent) within that minority say their loss of trust has led them to donate less.
  5. By far the most important reasons people give for donating to a charity are belief in the cause, and belief that the charity is making a difference – a reminder, if we needed it, that people give to a cause and a particular charity, not to “charity” in general.

“Findings” that the Commission is trying to draw – wrongly

Now we turn to some of the conclusions that the Commission’s leadership has sought to draw and highlight from the research. In a speech to some women charity leaders on 10 December 2019, the Chair said: “We know that people have clear expectations that charity [she means the work of charities] should be distinct from, different to, other types of endeavour.” Because charities are seen as so special, “people” or “the public” expect charities to behave specially well, selflessly, and show a spirit of charity – respect, compassion and care for others – emanating from them in the way they behave and go about their work.

That is not what the research shows. Populus asked  its 6 focus groups in 2018 (of 8 or 9 people each) for reactions to two statements about the standards to which charities should be held. One was: “Charities have to live up to the same standards as the rest of us” (my italics). This commanded assent from some in all the groups, and it was the only statement shown to the two London groups. That obviously does not support Baroness Stowell’s claim of distinctiveness. The other statement, which was overall more popular with those who saw it in Taunton and Manchester was: “Charities are held to higher standards that reflect the importance of the work they do” (my italics). This does not say that the standards should be higher than for those in other fields of important work – it links the high standards to the importance of the work. Hence, individuals in the focus groups commented, those who do important work with vulnerable people, such as those who work in alcohol or drug clinics, have to show high standards in the same way that we expect high standards of doctors and the police. Thus,  the Chair’s inference that the public expects higher standards of behaviour from charities than from other sectors is unsupported by the research.

Take another example from the same address. “People want to see that what goes on in a charity is motivated by the same spirit of charity that prompts them to volunteer at a shelter on Christmas Day, or sacrifice a luxury for themselves to make a larger Christmas donation”. You will find no evidence for this assertion in the Charity Commission’s research. The ‘Trust in Charities’ research of July 2018 showed that the most popular reason its sample of 2000 donated to charity was  belief in the cause, followed by a belief that the charity made a positive difference. Trailing behind that was the belief that the charity was doing good work in the UK. So far as I can see, nobody at all said that it was because they were looking for and recognised the spirit of charity or specially good behaviour.

When asked a more specific question about what was most important to their trust and confidence in charities – not the same question as what they are most looking for generally – 37% of respondents said it was knowing whether or not a reasonable percentage of donations got through to the end cause, 36% chose whether the charity made a positive difference to the cause, while only 15% chose whether the charity had honest and ethical fundraisers and 8% whether the charity was well managed. Overwhelmingly, this suggests, it’s the cause that matters. This does not support the assertion that what they are looking for is the spirit of charity or a special ethos.

This picture does not change fundamentally when the groups are prompted separately to give a score out of 10 to indicate the importance for trust of various factors put in front of them. The winner with an average of 8.8 was transparency about where the money goes. The next most popular factor (8.5) was that the charities should be “true to their values”, which had not featured in the previous exercises. There is no evidence that they thought this was unique to charities: which institutions should not be “true to  their values”? Why would these values be different from the Nolan principles of public life (see below)? Moreover, not only transparency about the use of  money, but also efficient use of resources, being  well governed and well managed, demonstrating a positive difference and being expert, capable and skilled, all attracted the same order of support (from 8.4 to 8.0)  – nothing “distinct” and unique to charities there.

What the focus groups said about culture and behaviour

Now let us look at what else the groups said about charities’ culture and behaviour, mostly in the context of their views on what the regulator (about which most of them previously knew little or nothing) should be doing.

In the wake of the Oxfam scandal, some said that charities should treat vulnerable people with dignity and respect. One person in one focus group is quoted as saying “I want charities to improve their morals really and be held accountable, to be made an example of”. One other said ambiguously “Check the charity is run properly – it’s a moral thing.” But most of the references to morals and behaviour relate explicitly to their concerns about proper use of money for the cause. For instance: “We expect charities to work with integrity. There should be guidelines on best practice, on all sorts of things: staffing, money, so they’re not being wasteful”. Or again: “[The Charity Commission] should be checking the books, finding where money is spent.” Typical suggestions were that the Commission should assess how well charities were spending money on the cause as opposed to themselves, crack down on those who were found not to be helping people in need, check Trustees were fit and proper people to run the charity, and seek out evidence that a charity was actually having an impact.

In so far as there were mentions of organisational behaviour and culture in addition to being seen to use money well for the cause,  there is nothing here that is not in the Nolan principles of public life that apply to the entire civil service, local government, police, courts and probation services, all other public bodies and all health, education, social and care services. A reminder: the Nolan principles, articulated in 1995, are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. To hear a few focus group participants naming a few of these does not mean that they are asking for something special of charities because they think charities are different and special.

In fact, since most if not all of the big name charities they have mainly in mind deliver public services via Government contracts, they are already explicitly bound by these Nolan principles anyway.

Summary of what the research shows…

What all this does illuminate is that that a significant number of respondents were worried that very big charities might be spending too much money on themselves rather than the end cause and people in need. This tipped over in some cases into what the Chair has called “so-called myths” and what the rest of us call myths, such as “The management and the people who run the charities take all the money” (male volunteer in Taunton).  It confirms that open information and explanation about the use of money, and evidence of impact, are perceived as helpful to the trustworthiness of a charity (as is surely true of many other organisations). It confirms unsurprisingly that people take a dim view if a charity is found guilty of deliberate mismanagement, eg not to be helping people in need and serving the personal interests of staff or Trustees instead. If they do that kind of thing they should be held to account: big household name charities are not seen as above the same sort of accountability that pertains in other sectors. On these largely unexceptionable matters the research adds some colour and insight.

…and does not show

What it does not show is that these people think charities should be held to higher standards than other sectors. It does not show that they are looking for a special spirit of charity that should be the distinctive hallmark of the sector. It does not show that declining (or, as it is now, plateauing) trust and confidence as measured in this research is the main or even a major driver of public behaviour in donating time or money to charities. It does not show that the special behaviour of charities is a salient feature of public expectations , as distinct from a charitable cause worth supporting, an ability to advance it and make an impact,  careful and transparent use of the money entrusted to a cause, and principles of behaviour that have for many years been expected across the whole public sector and beyond.

This modest research base is not terra firma on which to base large generalisations about what the diverse multitudes comprising “the public” expect of the 168,000 varied bodies comprising the charity sector. Even within these limitations, the research does not support the particular generalisations that its Chair is making.  I really hope that the Commission’s leadership will stop repeating these unfounded assertions, which don’t do much for much-needed trust and confidence in the Charity Commission itself.

 

 

The Labour Party, Long Bailey and “the establishment”

Rebecca Long Bailey’s leadership launch in Tribune includes this passage: “You are as likely to see me on a picket line as you are at the despatch box, and you can trust me to fight the establishment tooth and nail”. Elsewhere she says “we need to rebuild Labour as an insurgent force and offer  a vision for a new democracy. We must go to war with the political establishment…” But what does she mean?

An important question for those of us who will be choosing a new Labour Leader is: how likely is the British electorate to opt for a war or insurgency against “the establishment”? After all, they have just put Bullingdon Club Boris and a large number of other establishment figures into power with a thumping majority, despite the Labour Party’s being the largest insurgent force in living memory.

So what is the establishment against which we should be declaring war or fighting tooth and nail (quite  violent expressions, even as metaphor)? For many of us, the British establishment includes prominently the royal family and all the Lords Lieutenants, the Archbishops and Bishops of the Church of England, the House of Lords, the senior judiciary, the leaders of our armed forces, the senior civil service and Foreign Office, the Captains of Industry, the Vice Chancellors of  our universities – just to name a few. I am sure Long Bailey does not mean we should go to war against all of these, but the phrase opens herself and her Party to damaging misunderstanding. It doesn’t necessarily sit well with progressive patriotism, which Long Bailey espoused in a recent Guardian article. Remember the damage done when Jeremy Corbyn once did not join in the national anthem – quite tame compared to waging all-out war?

I assume Long Bailey means “establishment” in a different sense, which is those people who supposedly have a stranglehold on power and wealth in our society. The problem is that this sort of analysis is vague and contestable. Are bankers and financiers a monolith, is Industry a monolith, are the media a monolith, conspiring together with those with inherited wealth and privilege to increase inequality and feather their own nests at the expense of the people? Are all elites to be condemned as neo liberal and self-seeking, and the enemy, or is there variety within them? If there is no monolithic conspiracy, who are we supposed to be warring against, and who might be spared?

Is it even possible some of the establishment might be a significant part of providing some of the solutions to our problems? Take Long Bailey’s Green New Deal, of which she is justly proud: are not many key figures within influential business and financial circles, the senior civil service and other parts of the establishment, going to be vital players in working for the new green world we need? Are not some of them already key figures, like those driving down the price of batteries and renewable technology, or civil service leaders trying to shape COP 20, or the likes of Nicholas Stern and Mark Carney: two very establishment figures, but also important green leaders? How inclusive is the progressive coalition needed to meet such huge challenges?

A different definition is also used by Long Bailey: “the political establishment”. This seems to be similar to what Trump describes as the Washington swamp. It may be confusing for electors who always thought that leaders of Her Majesty’s Opposition were very much part of the political establishment themselves. What indeed is the political establishment? In addition to Government and Opposition, it surely includes influential backbenchers such as Chairs of Select Committees that hold the executive to account. Are we to be at war with them? The Speaker? Surely not the House of Commons as a whole? Local Government Associations? I really don’t know who is in the political establishment and who isn’t. You can favour Long Bailey’s recommendation for much greater devolution of power away from Westminster (I do), or abolition of the House of Lords (not so sure), without signing up to a war against the entire (ill-defined) political establishment.

I suspect most British electors are peaceable people who are not specially attracted by warlike metaphors. If we are being asked to sign up to tooth and nail warfare against a group or groups of our fellow citizens, even very fortunate and privileged ones, please can we be told more clearly who they are?

The Charity Commission’s Christmas Sermon

Christmas is coming, and the Charity Commission’s Chair has delivered an address to a group of women charity leaders that resembles a Christmas sermon (“Charity can and should lead the way in taking people’s expectations seriously”, CC Press Release of 12 December 2019).

Baroness Stowell’s theme is that society is weakened if people feel that their legitimate expectations are ignored by those who are more fortunate. Good point, topical enough in the light of the General Election result. Charity leaders should therefore show the way in demonstrating that they listen and respond to public expectations (she does not mention actually empowering sections of the public, which is what a lot of charities try to do). She thinks she knows what public expectations of charities are, and calls on us all to show how we are changing in order to meet them.

In seasonal vein, this is her version of what “the public” expect of us: “Christmas is a time when we lift our heads above our own individual hopes, worries, ambitions and interests and think about others. That respect, care and compassion for others is a fundamental part of being human….And it’s what charity is all about. Ultimately charities are the vehicles, the bodies. Charity is the spirit that should guide them and emanate from them, whatever their individual purposes and activities….It is that spirit that the public expect to recognise when they look at charities and those leading charities.”

But this is to confuse – deliberately – registered charities with something much more nebulous – the spirit of charity –  which is not confined to registered charities at all. The Charity Commission should get its hands off the spirit of charity which St Paul famously yoked together with faith and hope, and which is these days also translated as “love”. The quality of Christian charity or love (as traditionally understood), kindness and generosity, is displayed in our family lives, our informal interactions with our friends, neighbours and local communities, in many of our public services, and in a host of organisations that are part of civil society and not registered charities. It is therefore a verbal outrage to conflate registered charities with the quality of charity, taking the Commission far beyond its area of legitimacy and authority. By contrast, in its charter, the 2011 Charities  Act: ‘”charity” means an institution which (a) is established for charitable purposes only and (b) falls to be subject to the control of the High Court in the exercise of its jurisdiction etc…’ The Commission’s slogan of wanting “charity to thrive” redefines the term used in its charter and imports imprecision and resulting confusion – Stowellism – into the heart of its strategic rhetoric.

A second problem is that, as the Commission’s own research shows very clearly, most of “the public” have no idea of what is a registered charity and what is not, apart from about ten household names. So to build a sermon, and generalisations applied to the whole charity sector,  on what the public expects of charities is fundamentally questionable.

Thirdly, the formula of “respect, care and compassion for others”, undoubtedly most important values for humanity, does not particularly apply to various categories of registered charities which the Commission is supposed to be regulating: we could debate how far it applies to some brands of religion, to animal welfare, the advancement of education and research, the advancement of the arts, culture, science and sport, the protection and improvement of the environment, or the promotion of the efficiency of the armed services of the Crown. Yet these are all charitable purposes as set out by Parliament. Thus, the Chair’s observations on the spirit of charity in some respects exceed her proper area of authority and legitimacy, by venturing into that of the Archbishop of Canterbury, while in other respects excluding important categories of charities as defined in the Charities Act.

Fourthly, the public is not a monolith. Generalisations about this amorphous variety are extremely hazardous. Even the Charities Act distinguishes between accountability to donors, beneficiaries and the general public, in a way Baroness Stowell does not. It is not true that in general “when people come into contact with charities, this is what they are looking and checking for: leaders demonstrating through their actions that they share with them a common understanding of what charity means”. On the contrary, people generally support particular charitable causes, not charity in general.  I attended a Christmas celebration of the CPRE, the Countryside Charity a couple of days’ ago. It filled a large church with members of the public who support the cause. It was all about celebrating the common endeavour, rekindling a passionate commitment to the countryside, hearing what plans and prospects there were, firing a determination to redouble our efforts in the coming year. It was not about some definition of charity. That example can be multiplied countless times.

The Commission’s Foreword to its research on Trust in Charities 2018 (July 2018) said ominously “it is incumbent on us as regulator to represent the public”. That is a mistake. That is not what the Charities Act says. The Commission is a quite small Board of unelected appointees who cannot credibly represent the public. Nor does their useful but modest commissioned research bear anything like the weight that the Commission places on it in claiming to know what “the public” expects, as I hope to demonstrate again shortly.

At least the Archbishop of Canterbury can claim the authority of the Anglican combination of scripture, church tradition and reason, and the status of the Established Church, when he delivers his Christmas sermon. The Chair of the Charity Commission has no similar basis of legitimacy or authority to interpret the meaning of charity with a small “c” or represent the public. It is Parliament who represents the public, and who gave the Commission an Act of Parliament as its charter. Why not stick to it, and to the Commission’s real area of grounded expertise, more closely?

 

 

 

 

Too Many Stowellisms

(This blog is also available on the website of The Directory of Social Change, of which I am a Trustee, under the title: “The “Value of Charity” is in its independence, not conformity”

  1. What a muddle the Charity Commission’s leadership seems to be in about the distinctive nature of registered charities!
  2. Early in October the Charity Commission published a paper, written jointly with Frontier Economics (led by Lord Gus O’Donnell, former Cabinet Secretary), to “explain the steps that are needed to measure the value of the charity sector”. The main thrust is: we all need to understand the “real” value of the sector, which lies not only in its economic value or in what it achieves for its beneficiaries, but also in wider benefits to society, particularly in what makes the sector special in the eyes of “the public”. There are some sensible descriptions of the different dimensions of this value to society. Sadly, however, the paper is full of Stowell-isms (imprecise generalisations that lead to confusion).
  3. Firstly, although the paper is supposed to be about what is distinctive about the charity sector, the benefits spoken of, such as those from volunteering, altruism, participation, community-building, wellbeing and giving, apply equally to the wider civil society sector that is not formally registered as charities. This is a howler.
  4. Secondly, what the Charity Commission Chair likes to describe as “charitable” behaviour is not defined and the vague pointers she has given in the past are by no means distinctive to registered charities, or even to civil society. Anyone who has experienced the love and care of the NHS at its best will bridle at the claim that the charity sector is more loving or caring. The selflessness of service people, policemen or fire-fighters risking their lives is every bit as inspiring as the supposed “selflessness” of the charity sector. Trust in charities is not necessarily, as stated in the paper, a result of meeting (distinctively?) high standards of conduct and behaviour (not defined), but is certainly something to do with three factors that are barely mentioned in the paper: the fact that charities must be independent, the fact that they must be for a charitable purpose and the public benefit (not private or sectional gain) and the fact that the formal registration means they have passed these tests and will be regulated by the Charity Commission to ensure they stick to them.
  5. Thirdly, the paper makes sadly familiar generalisations about the expectations of charities on the part of “the public”. But the Charity Commission and all of us know that “the public” is not monolithic, and that, as shown by their own research, most of the public have no idea which organisations are charities, beyond a very small number of household names. So what “the public” thinks about “charities” is an unreliable basis for sensible regulation (or measuring their value).
  6. Fourthly, the paper generally downplays the point that charities exist to promote a particular cause, defined by Parliament, for the public benefit. It is pre-occupied with secondary wider benefits. It downplays the fact that most people give to and volunteer for a particular charity and cause, not to “charity” in the abstract. The main responsibility of charities is to pursue their individual charitable objects independently and for the public benefit; their main responsibility is to their beneficiaries, who are not just one among equal stakeholders.
  7. Fifthly, the paper states that “charities have the potential, perhaps even the responsibility to help bridge our divides but they will not be able to fulfil this role if they themselves are seen as contributing to them”. But the purpose of many charities is sometimes divisive – think of fundamentalist kinds of religion, public schools, environmental campaigns such as those who have just brought about the moratorium on fracking, those supporting unpopular groups, feminist and LGBT charities, not to mention the Institute for Economic Affairs, whose charity status the Commission has decided not to challenge: for many, at times, their role is contentious. Surely the Chair of the Charity Commission of all people should respect the diversity of the sector?
  8. If only the Charity Commission would ground itself in what really is the distinctive nature of registered charities, and in what really does apply to the sector as a whole: the combination of the voluntary principle, independence, dedication to a charitable cause within charity law, public benefit, regulation in the public interest – and leave Thought for the Day to others.

Rough Justice: the Charity Commission and Oxfam GB (full version)

(A Summary of this paper will be delivered to the Charity Law Association Annual Conference on 3 October and is available separately on this website.)

Introduction

  1. There have been some important gains for the international charity sector, and our sector more broadly, as a result of the painful scandal to hit Oxfam GB and the statutory Inquiry carried out by the Charity Commission. It is now much clearer to charities that, in the words of the Charity Commission Report, “Protecting people from harm is not an overhead to be minimised, it is a fundamental and integral part of operating as a charity for the public benefit”. We must all, belatedly, place concern for, and listening to, survivors of sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation as a much higher priority than we and most other social institutions have done until relatively recently. Oxfam GB has chosen to accept the Inquiry’s findings and they and Oxfam International are in the midst of ambitious plans to achieve a step change in the effectiveness of their safeguarding operations and HR culture, whilst many other charities, who watched Oxfam take a massive hit on behalf of all of us who had so much need to improve our performance, have scrambled to invest more time, money and attention in these matters. This has involved enormous effort on the part of the Charity Commission and they deserve credit for their important contribution to this increased awareness and these substantial improvements.
  2. Nonetheless, aspects of the Commission’s Inquiry and Report are disquieting. I emphasise that I have deliberately not consulted anyone associated with Oxfam in the past or present in any way about this paper. Its views are entirely mine.[1]
  3. What are the fundamental purposes of a major statutory Inquiry such as the one carried out by the Charity Commission into safeguarding and related matters at Oxfam GB? I assume that the purposes are:
  • To give confidence to the public, including politicians, donors and supporters of charities, that decisive regulatory action will be taken if a charity goes astray, that wrong-doing that damages trust in charities will not be tolerated and will be rectified thoroughly
  • To find out in a trustworthy manner what actually happened, and why it happened
  • To ensure that, from such an authoritative understanding, the right conclusions are drawn and lessons learned and acted on for the future
  • To see that justice is done – to the victims of any inadequacies in Oxfam’s safeguarding, to whistle-blowers who helped uncover such inadequacies, to Oxfam’s supporters and donors who have given in good faith and deserve to know the truth about the charity, and to the Trustees, staff and volunteers of the charity who deserve a fair assessment of the allegations made against them.
  • The Essential Trustee offers an important perspective on justice to Trustees: “The Commission recognises that most trustees are volunteers who sometimes make honest mistakes. Trustees are not expected to be perfect – they are expected to do their best to comply with their duties. Charity law generally protects trustees who have acted honestly and reasonably.” That constitutes an implicit pledge to Trustees and is a cornerstone of Trusteeship. We shall come back to it.
  1. The circumstances leading to the Inquiry into Oxfam made it exceptionally difficult for the Charity Commission to achieve all of these purposes. My assessment is that the first objective was largely achieved but the other three were not. Since I wrote this paper, the former Chief Executive of the Charity Commission, Andrew Hind, has independently published (Civil Society News of 18 September 2019) a forensic article showing that in his view the evidence of the Commission’s Inquiry into Oxfam GB does not support the conclusions drawn by the Commission: https://www.civilsociety.co.uk/voices/andrew-hind-oxfam-an-alternative-perspective.html
  2. The first difficulty was the sustained virulence of public and political indignation about the scandalous revelations in the media. This fury was unprecedented, and the Commission were no more used to it than Oxfam GB. A rough analogy might be the public indignation about the murder of Baby P in Haringey in August 2008. All agencies and key players trying to handle the Baby P case fared badly as they tried to respond to public and political fury[2]. It was only when Lord Laming was asked to undertake a broader, calmer appraisal of child protection generally in the wake of the Baby P case that all four of our Inquiry purposes were likely to be met. The furore over Oxfam GB created a similarly red-hot atmosphere, with damaging implications for calm truth-seeking.
  3. The second difficulty was that the public fury had scorched the backside of the Charity Commission itself, as well as Oxfam. Since the Commission was actually told by Oxfam that staff in Haiti had been dismissed for sexual misconduct, and invited explicitly to ask for any more detail it required, why, asked many commentators, did it not do so? Was it really Oxfam’s fault, asked others, if reporting of safeguarding incidents to the Commission had generally been allowed to become less frequent, consistent and timely than it has since become? Others asked: why had the Commission not picked up on a whistle-blower’s testimony sooner? Hence, in the subsequent Inquiry, the Commission had points to prove affecting its own reputation.
  4. This toxic atmosphere threatened to contaminate the objectivity of the Inquiry from the start. The statutory Inquiry into Oxfam GB was launched on 12 February 2018. On that same day, 12 February, the Charity Commission’s own Director of Investigations told the BBC in interviews that Oxfam had not disclosed full details of what happened in Haiti and “We are as you would expect very angry and cross about this”. That is unusual language at the very start of what is supposed to be a truth seeking and fair Inquiry. The Commission launched an Inquiry identifying itself with public shock, fury and indignation at Oxfam. Once they had committed themselves to that position, it would have been difficult to row back.
  5. The result was that the Inquiry was indeed more like an aggressive prosecution than an impartial fact-finding exercise in understanding what happened and why.
  6. The third difficulty lies in the definition of “safeguarding” for the purposes of the Inquiry. In its updated strategy, guidance and alerts relating to safeguarding the Charity Commission is at pains to use a wide definition that is not restricted to sexual exploitation and abuse, nor to children and vulnerable adults. The definition is “[ensuring] that beneficiaries or others who come into contact with their charity do not, as a result, come to harm”. That definition clearly includes such matters as Health and Safety and security – huge issues for Oxfam, especially when working in war zones and chaotic disaster zones, or impoverished countries where there is no general use of seatbelts and where roads and vehicles, unstable buildings and mudslides may be very dangerous. If those aspects of safeguarding are neglected, tragedy and death can and does result.[3] So it is disturbing that, despite their own definition, the Commission’s Inquiry neglects such vital aspects of safeguarding as security, or Health and Safety, or whole dimensions of the Humanitarian Division’s Safe Programming, altogether. That builds potential injustice into the Inquiry. [4]
  7. The fourth difficulty is the grossly unequal power relationship between the Charity Commission and Oxfam for the duration of the Inquiry and beyond. This stemmed partly from the huge mass of public indignation filling the Commission’s sails. Oxfam’s only viable communications strategy was to keep saying “Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry”, express shame and remorse time and again, and promise that everything would now change. I totally respect that strategy, and when Mark Goldring once tried to push back against the tide a further tsunami of indignation ensued. Oxfam’s funding from DFID and others was also frozen pending the outcome of the Commission’s Inquiry, so the Commission was in an extremely powerful position, and Oxfam in an extremely weak one. That is not necessarily conducive to careful understanding of Oxfam’s side of the story or to balanced truth-seeking. Oxfam GB had in the end to accept almost any judgement from the Commission, such was the overwhelming priority to get the Inquiry over and move on. That prepared the way for a Report, which the Commission went out of its way to badge as highly critical, with the humiliating charge of “mismanagement” reiterated again and again, creating a comprehensively derogatory cumulative effect.
  8. A fifth difficulty was that, so far as I know, among the Board or senior staff of the Commission there is limited experience of working in or being a Trustee of a charity even remotely like Oxfam. Nor can the Commission afford any more to have a Large Charities Division. Perhaps this partly explains why the reality of what it was actually like to be Trustees or senior staff leaders of Oxfam GB and why it might be that they did not fund safeguarding more generously, as I have explained at length in another article, are entirely absent from the Report.[5]

Authoritative Fact-Finding on what happened …..

  1. There is a great deal of praiseworthy, meticulous fact-finding in the main Report itself. Exhaustive examination of many records is evident. The views of Oxfam’s current and past representatives are frequently quoted, and for example the former Trustees had legal representation and an impartial QC was put in charge of over-seeing the independent inquiry into safeguarding by the consultancy firm Ineqe. But to my mind there are significant instances where even in the narrative of the main Report itself there is reluctance to allow relevant facts to weaken the prosecution case.
  2. For example, it became quite well known amid the media furore that aspects of Oxfam’s safeguarding in its global humanitarian work had been singled out for praise as best practice in an independent study by a Professor and team at Tufts University in the USA. Even if the specialist consultants Ineqe pooh-pooh the methodology of that study, it seems unfair not to mention it at all except in a dismissive footnote.
  3. The Inquiry is critical of a number of aspects of the way in which Oxfam carried out its investigation into the allegations about some its Haiti staff in 2011. What is not mentioned is that Oxfam itself disciplined the lead Investigator precisely for some of these shortcomings and indeed, as a result of these and other aspects of his performance, negotiated his resignation, which he at first resisted, from Oxfam. To mention the flaws without mentioning Oxfam’s vigorous disciplinary response is unfair and one-sided.
  4. Some of the strongest criticism of Oxfam GB in the Report is levelled at the decision to allow (or force – both words apply) the Country Director in Haiti to resign on a month’s notice, taking responsibility for all the wrong-doing on his watch, rather than dismiss him summarily because he had (according to him twice in a year) paid for sex with prostitutes in his residence provided by Oxfam. A key reason given by the Oxfam investigators for recommending this was the equivalent to plea bargaining. Confronted by Oxfam’s investigators, the Country Director had agreed to resign and cooperate with the investigation as part of the proposed deal, lending his assistance and testimony in the process that led to the dismissal of four staff and forced resignation of two others – quite a purge. Crucially, the Inquiry does not try to assess whether the CD’s collaboration with the Inquiry was in fact instrumental in the disciplining of the other offenders, despite the fact that it was a potent consideration in the resignation deal. If the Country Director’s cooperation was in fact significant in the effectiveness of the purge, the Commission’s prosecution case would look weaker. Is that why the Inquiry did not try to assess the extent to which the plea bargain assisted in clearing out the Haitian stables? And there were other important reasons for the senior staff decision which the Inquiry does not assess properly.[6]
  5. A further example of lapses in fairness comes in the phraseology sometimes chosen by the Report. A discussion of the 2011 events in Haiti and subsequent decisions and reporting ends with the following judgement on page 79: “Overall, the Inquiry is not completely satisfied that the combined oversight, scrutiny of the information and assurances given to the 2011 Trustees were sufficient in the circumstances”. Presumably, if they are not “completely satisfied”, a very high bar, they could have said that they are in many respects satisfied, or are mostly satisfied, or there were excellent elements mixed with some inadequate ones, but the choice is to say the Inquiry is not completely satisfied.
  6. Similarly, having found that the Haiti events were followed up by a comprehensive action plan which was taken to the relevant Board Committee, discussed at length there and against which progress was, according to the testimony of the then Trustees, reported to and monitored by them at all times, the Report concludes:

“Overall the Inquiry finds that the former trustees did exercise oversight over the organisational risks arising from the internal investigation and how the executive proposed they would be addressed. However, the inquiry was not completely satisfied that the oversight and scrutiny of the information and assurances provided by the executive were sufficient to enable the trustees to be satisfied that they were carrying out their legal duties and responsibilities, and that the executive were effectively held to account for the decisions they had made on matters of such significance.”

This summarises many positive aspects with a dry understatement – they exercised oversight – and places the emphasis on failure to reach the high and subjective bar of “complete satisfaction” of the Inquiry. Trustees, take note: The Essential Trustee may say you are not expected to be perfect but if the going gets rough, expect the Charity Commission nevertheless to apply a criterion of complete satisfaction.

  1. The next example pertains to the reporting of the Haiti investigation to the Charity Commission at the time. The Inquiry is reluctant to admit candidly that Oxfam were following almost universal practice in the charity sector in referring to beneficiaries in Haiti as the people actually receiving aid and support from Oxfam, ie as synonymous with their users. The idea that in that context they were using the word as referring to every member of the earthquake-affected population on the island of Haiti seems to me fanciful. Moreover, the Commission itself uses the word “beneficiaries” as synonymous with users in other relevant contexts. For instance, in Chapter 2 of their 2013 Toolkit on Protecting Charities from Harm, they say: “What trustees need to apply to undertake due diligence can be described as the “know your” principles:
  • Know your donor
  • know your beneficiaries
  • know your partner”

They are then told they “must follow these principles when they are selecting….beneficiaries.” In the Haiti context, that must mean selecting and knowing the people who are actually receiving or going to be receiving your aid – Oxfam could hardly be “selecting”, or “know”, the entire population affected in some way by the earthquake.

Authoritative Analysis of WHY it happened

19. Despite these questions of selection and negative framing, the main Report is better at presenting the facts of what happened than explaining why it happened.

20. In Part One, covering what happened in Haiti, there is little analysis of specific characteristics of the handful of people who were found to have breached the Code of Conduct – the facts for example that they were white expatriates with a particular prevalent hard-drinking, hard-bitten culture of men scrambled to react to emergencies and disasters in different parts of the world. There is no mention of the fact that there were so few women in positions of management authority in Haiti or elsewhere, and that Haitian staff members seemed to play second fiddle to the expats. There is no effort to even mention the possible roles of patriarchy, racism or post-colonial attitudes to illuminate lessons that might be relevant.

21. It is easy for the Inquiry to criticise the postponement for 6 months of a series of training courses in Haiti on the Prevention of Sexual Abuse planned for June 2010, because they do not enquire into what caused that postponement[1]. If you don’t know why, it’s unfair to be critical.

22. As I have explained elsewhere[2], the whole of Part 2 of the main Report is vitiated by a failure to understand and describe the wider context in which the leadership of Oxfam GB were trying to manage risks, of which safeguarding was only one. This was the period when a new Oxfam International was being painfully born, sucking unrestricted resources and massive senior staff and Trustee time and attention into a fundamental re-structuring of the Confederation. This was a massive change, made for ethical reasons stemming from Oxfam’s values, in which Oxfam GB took a leadership role. It involved refashioning the flows of accountability, finance and risk management right across the globe in prolonged negotiations, followed by action plans of stunning complexity and duration. Pertinently, it meant that the Oxfam GB Trustees and senior staff were coping with an entire new layer of risky change management on top of the egregious risks already inherent in Oxfam’s work in up to 90 countries across the globe. This essential context, and the story of how Oxfam GB’s Trustees and staff set about this extraordinary risk management challenge, of which safeguarding was just one part, is entirely missing from the Charity Commission’s Report.

23. That context was well known to the Commission and could quite easily have been summarised. Failure to explore and describe it is particularly damaging for the purposes of understanding, as opposed to prosecution; of drawing the right conclusions; and of justice.

The repeated charges of “mismanagement”

24. It is not difficult to see why the Inquiry wanted to identify instances of “mismanagement in the administration of the charity”, because this is the relevant criterion for issuing a formal Regulatory Warning to Oxfam GB accompanied by formal requirements that Oxfam had to meet in order for the Warning to be lifted. This was perhaps seen as a key requirement for satisfying the first of the Inquiry’s objectives identified above.

25. The effect of frequently repeating this phrase throughout the Report is, however, to create a humiliating impression of systematic incompetence and failure, particularly on the part of the Trustees and senior staff leadership. That is what enabled the Commission to badge its Report so emphatically as “critical”, taking some media correspondents aback[3], in order to assuage public indignation and secure the objective of displaying a tough regulatory response.

26. In my opinion, however, most of the individual charges of mismanagement, with its connotations of systematic incompetence, are, at best, contestable, partly because the Inquiry does not define it adequately. How is “mismanagement” different from a difficult and debateable judgement, a decision to give priority to something else which with hindsight one regrets, inconsistent implementation of policies and procedures which the Trustees are doing their best to address, or even an honest mistake in a high pressure world? The Commission’s official definition in its guidance elsewhere does not help with these questions. It seems to me that the Commission was adopting as its approach: Never mind such distinctions, and never mind the side-effect of smearing the reputation of Trustees and senior leadership: keep thudding away with the charge of “mismanagement” and the requirement for a Warning will be met.

27. I assess the individual examples of so-called “mismanagement” in the Appendix of the written version of this paper in your pack, so you can see if you agree they are contestable or even untenable Please also bear in mind Andrew Hind’s excellent and painstaking analysis (Civil Society News, 18 September 2019).

28. All in all, in my opinion, the consequent impression of repeated incompetence is on closer inspection disproportionate and unfair, not least to the Trustees.

Drawing the Wrong Conclusions

29. The greatest injustice of the Charity Commission’s Inquiry and Report lies in some of the conclusions that are promoted by the Commission through the media but that are not borne out by the detailed Report, nor by other evidence.

30. The Conclusions section of the Report begins: “No charity is more important than the people it serves or the mission it pursues.” This forms the banner headline of the Commission’s press release launching the Report. But this is a straw man, since there is nowhere a shred of evidence that anyone in Oxfam thought that the charity was more important than the people it serves or its mission. Any inference that the Trustees and leadership were not completely focused on service to the mission and its beneficiaries is groundless.

31. The next conclusion, nesting beneath the banner headline and taken up by the Commission’s Chief Executive, is that Oxfam GB had a culture of tolerating poor behaviour. The Chief Executive adds that the events in Haiti were symptoms of a wider problem of tolerating poor behaviour, and that Oxfam’s culture at times also lost sight of the values it stands for. This is unjust because

  • As the Independent Commission emphasises, there is no one culture in Oxfam or Oxfam GB, but multiple different ones. The particular culture of hard-bitten expat white men in Haiti was quite different from that of their fellow Oxfam staff in more settled parts of the charity. The whole challenge of management is to achieve sufficient consistency across a hugely diverse and fragmented universe.
  • It is not true that, in general, Oxfam’s culture or cultures tolerated poor behaviour. I have enumerated elsewhere[4] the strenuous, sustained efforts of Trustees and a growing cadre of Oxfam GB staff known internally as The Compliance Alliance to improve compliance with regulatory requirements and Oxfam’s own policies and regulations as well as manage the risky structural upheaval of creating the new Oxfam International.
  • Whatever else one might say about Oxfam’s investigation in Haiti, resulting in four dismissals and three forced resignations, it is hardly fair to call it tolerating poor behaviour.
  • By the device of personalising a supposedly monolithic culture, the Commission’s Chief Executive falls short of saying that the Trustees and staff leadership tolerated poor behaviour and lost sight of their values. But only just.

32. The Chair of the Commission joins in saying that no charity is so large….that it can afford to put its reputation ahead of the dignity and wellbeing of those it exists to protect. The clear implication in context is that this is what Oxfam did. But this is simply not demonstrated by the Report into Oxfam GB. There is no evidence that considerations of reputation overrode concern for beneficiaries and others who came into contact with the charity. There is no evidence that concern for the charity’s reputation was a factor causing the events in Haiti, or the decisions of Oxfam’s investigators there or those of the senior staff in Oxford. Nor did that factor play a part in the allocation of unrestricted funds to important demands other than expanding the safeguarding unit, nor in failure to follow up historic allegations after the purge in Haiti was accomplished.

33. Reputation was only a significant factor in the limited area of less than fully comprehensive reporting of the Haiti incident to big donors and the Charity Commission but this was not at the expense of concern for those coming into contact with the charity. The Inquiry itself concluded that there was no cover up.

34. The Chair adds that being a charity is not just about what you do but how you do it. If she means that Oxfam’s leaders were too focused on their mission to eliminate poverty and advance human rights and didn’t care enough about bad or uncharitable behaviour by themselves or their staff, that is not what the record shows is generally true. I want to put on record my view that the Trustees and senior leaders did NOT tolerate poor behaviour. They knew perfectly well that how you do things is crucially important. Otherwise, why would they have bothered to embark on the restructuring of the Confederation, the better to align Oxfam’s way of doing things with its values and the long term interests of its mission? Or why did Oxfam GB’s Council spend so much time and effort on risk management, compliance, and adherence to policies and operating procedures in support of The Compliance Alliance of staff?

Conclusion

35. The enormously hard work put into the Inquiry by the Commission and Oxfam GB has had some important, positive outcomes, as we gladly recorded at the start. That deserves appreciation. The first of our four objectives may have been largely achieved, but the other three objectives less so.

36. The Inquiry did not find out in a calm and authoritative way what happened and why it happened, because it was more of a prosecution than a genuinely objective Inquiry. It never fully recovered from the “very angry and cross” attitude with which the Commission launched it. Despite a great deal of meticulous research, there are lapses in fairness and important omissions in the basic narrative. There are serious failures even to try to understand why Oxfam took various key decisions, for example the context in which the Trustees and senior leadership were addressing multiple risks and demands on limited unrestricted funds facing the charity and wider Confederation.

37. The attempt to draw the right lessons for the future also had mixed success. I have paid tribute to some important positive outcomes. On the other hand, the conclusions drawn by the leaders of the Commission and widely promoted via the media are not supported by the evidence of the Report nor other sources and hence are the wrong lessons.

38. Finally, the Inquiry did not achieve consistently the objective of seeing that justice is done. Perhaps justice was done to the whistle-blowers who went public with their criticisms of Oxfam’s safeguarding and to those survivors who may not have received the support they deserved from Oxfam’s safeguarding and HR systems; but justice was not done to the charity, its staff, volunteers and supporters, nor notably to its Trustees. This was because the Commission conducted the Inquiry as both angry prosecutor and judge; and prioritised the imperative of producing a highly critical report, with its repeated but ill-defined charges of mismanagement, over fairness and over the implicit pledge made to Trustees in The Essential Trustee. 

39. This is more significant than a bit of rough justice to a few individuals or a single charity. Trustees need to know that if they pursue their duties conscientiously, reasonably and to the best of their ability, they will be protected and supported by the Charity Commission and the courts if things go wrong: for example, if they make mistakes or judgements that they later regret. That is a foundation of Trusteeship, of society’s bargain with those who give up their time and energies for love of serving a charity. Where does the Inquiry into Oxfam leave us Trustees who thought we could rely on that bargain? For us, I am afraid, in Robert Browning’s words, “Never glad confident morning again!”

 

Andrew Purkis,

September 2019

 

 

 

Appendix: Examples of “Mismanagement” alleged by the Charity Commission’s Inquiry into Oxfam GB

 

  1. The first formal charge of mismanagement relates to an email purporting to be from a 13 year old local Haitian girl received on 18 July 2011 alleging abuse and sexual exploitation of herself and another girl of 12 at the hands of Oxfam staff, and a second email a little later saying they were now being looked after in a convent. The fact that the email was sent to the Chief Executive in Oxford and a media email address known only to a few Oxfam staff, among other reasons, at once raised strong suspicions that this was a hoax or fake. It was remitted to the investigating team in Haiti to follow up. They did not apparently do so, as they were focused on getting rid of the people who had been involved in known sexual and other misconduct. Similarly, after the purge was completed, neither the Chief Executive nor other senior staff in Oxford were motivated to follow up to see what the investigation team had done with the fishy email. Further recent research on the IPN numbers of the relevant emails confirms that they were fake. The Trustees were not told about this matter. Even if it was extremely improbable that a 13 year old local Haitian girl would send an email to an address known only to a few Oxfam staff, says the Commission, and it turned out to be fake, it was “mismanagement” not to follow up the email just in case.
  2. The second charge relates to the decision, already discussed, to negotiate the equivalent of a plea bargain with the Country Director in Haiti whereby he was forced to resign in a month rather than be summarily dismissed for sleeping with prostitutes in his Oxfam residence, in return for collaborating with the investigation. This was certainly at the very least a questionable judgement on the part of senior staff, but it is impossible to evaluate it without analysis of whether the plea bargain was instrumental in rooting out the other offenders and expelling them from Oxfam and Haiti. The Inquiry offers no such analysis, so the charge of mismanagement is flawed. If the Chair or Hon Officers were consulted, it would have been informally only.[1] It was treated as a confidential management decision. Yet the repeated charge of mismanagement sticks to the Trustees too.
  3. The third charge of mismanagement is levelled at the failures of
  • The investigation team in Haiti and Oxfam GB HR to follow up in 2011 allegations about the use of prostitutes by Oxfam staff in Chad four years’ before, made by someone who had not witnessed the alleged misdemeanours herself. The investigation team, reasonably I think, gave priority to nailing the same key individuals concerned for what the team could show they had done in Haiti, resulting in dismissals and forced resignation.
  • The Director of International Programmes for not doing more in 2011, after the Haiti purge had already expelled them from Oxfam, to follow up rumours of use of prostitutes by some of the same culprits in Chad and DRC in previous years. What she did was undertake a series of confidential discussions with staff who had been there at the time, which unearthed no relevant evidence, and report back to the Chief Executive verbally rather than in writing. “Mismanagement”? Note that, despite two previous investigations by Oxfam regional staff in Chad, the Inquiry acknowledges that there is no actual evidence to substantiate the rumoured use of prostitutes there.[2]
  1. The next three charges of “mismanagement” are all variations on the same theme: that although Oxfam GB was ahead of many other charities in having a specialist Safeguarding Unit, the Trustees and staff leadership were guilty of “mismanagement” because they did not resource it adequately (deciding to prioritise other demands on hard-pressed unrestricted funds which are unmentioned by the Inquiry). As a result, the Unit’s safeguarding systems showed a number of serious flaws and was not measuring up to the risks facing the charity. The Unit felt overwhelmed by individual cases and a more strategic approach fell by the wayside. All that is true and important. The Inquiry’s failure here, however, is not to acknowledge that the Trustees and senior staff were devoting enormous effort and resources to managing all kinds of risks, including a massive restructuring of the whole Confederation, the other aspects of safeguarding not included in the Inquiry and many other internal risks identified as priorities by the Charity Commission in recent years. The Trustees and senior staff might wish now that they had allocated more, sooner, to safeguarding and less to some other important demands, but in my view that is not the same as mismanagement of the charity.
  2. There was also the complicating issue that safeguarding was due to be handed over to Oxfam International as part of the Confederation’s continuing change programme, causing questions to be asked about the timing of further injections of cash into the Oxfam GB safeguarding unit. None of this is mentioned in the Charity Commission Report.
  3. The next charge of mismanagement relates to weaknesses disclosed by an independent HR review of Oxfam GB in 2018. Various aspects of vetting and referencing, recruitment practice, and induction were not consistently implemented. There was too much variation in standards, key values were not consistently embedded in day to day practice, and documented procedures were not consistently followed. A major action plan is underway whereby Oxfam GB and Oxfam International try to address these weaknesses. What is missing from the Report is the well documented insistence of the Oxfam GB Chair and Trustees precisely that policies and procedures were not being consistently implemented on the ground, with two major initiatives relating to better compliance regularly reported on to Council over a period of many months, together with big staff efforts underway, supported by Trustees, to drive up standards of compliance. These were readily available to the Charity Commission investigators but are nowhere referred to. And the Independent Commission set up by Oxfam is quoted selectively and unfavourably to give an unduly negative picture of Oxfam’s culture (as if it were a monolith).[3]
  4. The last example of “mismanagement” is more granular. 11 out of 129 UK safeguarding case files do not show that possible crimes were either reported to the state authorities or advice on them sought. It’s not possible to assess from the Report whether this might be a matter of poor recording, or what the reasons might be other than a simple oversight. It’s clear that the policy was always to report to the police. In addition, for overseas cases 31 out of 83 files do not enable the reader to be sure that a possible crime has been reported, though it might have been.

 

 

[1] Once the decision was made to accept resignation in a month as acceptance of responsibility for the whole mess on his watch, it is again debateable as to whether the nature of the plea bargain should have been revealed formally to all Trustees and to donors and the Charity Commission, or whether this was legitimately within the domain of confidential management.

 

[2] The Oxfam investigators were certain some forms of inappropriate behaviour had been going on but could not evidence use of prostitutes.

 

[3] Please see my article https://andrewpurkis.wordpress.com/2019/08/13/oxfam-gbs-culture-and-the-charity-commission/

[1] A reference by the Country Director to “the change management process” is left unexplored and unexplained.

[2] https://andrewpurkis.wordpress.com/2019/06/19/lets-not-learn-the-wrong-lessons-from-oxfam/

[3] As the BBC’s analyst Manveau Rana interpreted it: “It is rare to see such strong criticism of a charity….the Report is incredibly strong and has done something to redress the Charity Commission’s own laxity over safeguarding in the past.”

 

[4] https://andrewpurkis.wordpress.com/2019/08/13/oxfam-gbs-culture-and-the-charity-commission/

 

[1] My views are informed by a governance review which I conducted for Oxfam GB as an independent consultant in late 2017, to which a review of safeguarding governance in particular was added in early 2018. Those reviews were internal and remain confidential. They were both made available to the Charity Commission.

[2] Haringey Council were denounced for inadequate serious case reviews and not publishing them in full, and later for allegedly woeful quality of service. OFSTED was in trouble for replacing a favourable intended OFSTED review rating for Haringey rather suddenly with an extremely critical one, having undertaken a supplementary emergency investigation at the behest of Ed Balls the Secretary of State. Ed Balls and Haringey then sacked Sharon Shoesmith in a manner later found to be unlawful and unfair scapegoating.

[3] The Commission defined the scope of their Inquiry into Oxfam GB as “examine the charity’s governance (including leadership and culture), its management and its policies and practices with regard to safeguarding….. both generally and particularly in relation to……its responsibility to provide a safe environment for its beneficiaries, staff and other charity workers in the delivery of its overseas programmes and generally”.

[4] This is not an academic point, because the relevant Oxfam GB Trustees spent a lot of time and effort supervising security and Health and Safety matters, were anxious to discuss, assess and report on them to Council alongside other safeguarding issues, and agonised over whether and when responsibility for security matters could safely be transferred to the nascent Oxfam International, insisting that this and other aspects of safeguarding must not be handed over until it was demonstrably safe to do so. The Inquiry neglects all this.

 

[5] https://andrewpurkis.wordpress.com/2019/06/19/lets-not-learn-the-wrong-lessons-from-oxfam/

[6] Other reasons given by the Oxfam investigators for recommending the plea bargain were serious implications of summary dismissal for the Haiti programme – a point not explored by the Charity Commission – and for relationships between Oxfam GB and other Oxfams active in Haiti – another point not explored by the Commission. In addition senior staff in Oxford were not certain that the CD’s actions were in breach of the Code of Conduct as then drafted.

Rough Justice: the Charity Commission and Oxfam GB (Summary Version)

 

(Summary Version delivered to the Charity Law Association Annual Conference on 3 October. A fuller version is available on this website.)

Introduction

  1. There have been some important gains for the charity sector as a result of the painful scandal to hit Oxfam GB and the statutory Inquiry carried out by the Charity Commission. It is now much clearer to charities that, in the words of the Charity Commission Report, “Protecting people from harm is not an overhead to be minimised, it is a fundamental and integral part of operating as a charity for the public benefit”. Oxfam GB has chosen to accept the Inquiry’s findings and they and Oxfam International are in the midst of ambitious plans to achieve a step change in the effectiveness of their safeguarding operations and HR culture, whilst many other charities have scrambled to invest more time, money and energy in these matters. The Charity Commission deserves credit for its important contribution to these improvements.
  2. Nonetheless, aspects of the Commission’s Inquiry and Report are disquieting. ( I emphasise that I have deliberately not consulted anyone associated with Oxfam in the past or present in any way about this paper. Its views are entirely mine.[1])
  3. What are the fundamental purposes of a major statutory Inquiry such as this? I assume that the purposes are:
  • To give confidence to the public, including politicians, donors and supporters of charities, that decisive regulatory action will be taken if a charity goes astray, that wrong-doing that damages trust in charities will not be tolerated and will be rectified thoroughly
  • To find out in a trustworthy manner what actually happened, and why it happened
  • To ensure that, from such an authoritative understanding, the right conclusions are drawn and lessons learned and acted on for the future
  • To see that justice is done ( to the victims of any inadequacies in Oxfam’s safeguarding, to whistle-blowers, to Oxfam’s supporters and donors, and to the Trustees, staff and volunteers of the charity).
  • The Essential Trustee offers an important perspective on justice to Trustees: “The Commission recognises that most trustees are volunteers who sometimes make honest mistakes. Trustees are not expected to be perfect – they are expected to do their best to comply with their duties. Charity law generally protects trustees who have acted honestly and reasonably.” That constitutes an implicit pledge to Trustees and is a cornerstone of Trusteeship. We shall come back to it.
  1. The circumstances leading to the Inquiry into Oxfam made it exceptionally difficult for the Charity Commission to achieve all of these purposes. My assessment is that the first objective was largely achieved but the other three were not – an assessment broadly similar to that reached by the former Chief Executive of the Charity Commission, Andrew Hind (Civil Society News, 18 September 2019).
  2. The first difficulty was the sustained virulence of public and political indignation about the scandalous revelations in the media. This fury was unprecedented, and created a red-hot atmosphere, inimical to calm truth-seeking.
  3. The second difficulty was that the public fury had scorched the backsides of the Charity Commission itself, as well as Oxfam. Since the Commission was actually told by Oxfam that staff in Haiti had been dismissed for sexual misconduct, and invited explicitly to ask for any more detail it required, why, asked many commentators, did it not do so? There were other searching questions aimed at the Regulator. Hence, in the subsequent Inquiry, the Commission had points to prove affecting its own reputation.
  4. This toxic atmosphere threatened to contaminate the objectivity of the Inquiry from the start. The statutory Inquiry into Oxfam GB was launched on 12 February 2018. On that same day, the Charity Commission’s own Director of Investigations told the BBC in interviews that Oxfam had not disclosed full details of what happened in Haiti and “We are as you would expect very angry and cross about this”. That is unusual language at the very start of what is supposed to be a truth seeking and fair Inquiry. The Commission launched an Inquiry identifying itself with public shock, fury and indignation at Oxfam. Once they had committed themselves to that position, it would have been difficult to row back.
  5. The result was that the Inquiry was indeed more like an aggressive prosecution than an impartial fact-finding exercise in understanding what happened and why.
  6. A third difficulty was the grossly unequal power relationship between the Charity Commission and Oxfam for the duration of the Inquiry and beyond. This stemmed partly from the huge mass of public indignation filling the Commission’s sails. Oxfam’s only viable communications strategy was to keep saying “Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry”, express shame and remorse time and again, and promise that everything would now change. Oxfam’s funding from DFID and others was also frozen. So the Commission was in an extremely powerful position, and Oxfam in an extremely weak one. That is not necessarily conducive to balanced truth-seeking.
  7. A fourth difficulty was that, so far as I know, among the Board or senior staff of the Commission there is limited experience of working in or being a Trustee of a charity even remotely like Oxfam.

Authoritative Fact-Finding on what happened …..

  1. There is a great deal of praiseworthy, meticulous fact-finding in the main Report itself. But to my mind there are significant instances where even in the narrative of the main Report itself there is reluctance to allow relevant facts to weaken the prosecution case. Significant examples are given in the full version of this paper.
  2. One example is the negative phraseology sometimes chosen by the Report. A discussion of the 2011 events in Haiti and subsequent decisions and reporting ends with the following judgement on page 79: “Overall, the Inquiry is not completely satisfied that the combined oversight, scrutiny of the information and assurances given to the 2011 Trustees were sufficient in the circumstances”. Presumably, if they are not “completely satisfied”, a very high bar, they could have said that they are in many respects satisfied, or are mostly satisfied, or there were excellent elements mixed with some inadequate ones, but the choice is to say the Inquiry is not completely satisfied.  This happens again later in the Report. Trustees, take note: The Essential Trustee may say you are not expected to be perfect, but if the going gets rough, expect the Charity Commission nevertheless to apply a criterion of “complete satisfaction”.

Authoritative Analysis of WHY it happened

  1. Despite these significant flaws, however, the main Report is better at presenting the facts of what happened than explaining why it happened.
  2. In Part One, covering what happened in Haiti, there is little analysis of specific characteristics of the handful of people who were found to have breached the Code of Conduct – the facts for example that they were expatriates with a particular prevalent hard-drinking, hard-bitten culture of men scrambled to react to emergencies and disasters in different parts of the world.
  3. It is easy for the Inquiry to criticise the postponement for 6 months of a series of training courses in Haiti on the Prevention of Sexual Abuse planned for June 2010, because they do not enquire into what caused that postponement[2]. If you don’t know why, it’s unfair to be critical.
  4. As I have explained elsewhere[3], the whole of Part 2 of the main Report is vitiated by a failure to understand and describe the wider context in which the leadership of Oxfam GB were trying to allocate scarce unrestricted resources and manage risks, of which safeguarding was only one. This was the period when a new Oxfam International was being painfully born, sucking unrestricted resources and massive senior staff and Trustee time and attention into a fundamental re-structuring of the Confederation. This was a massive change, made for ethical reasons stemming from Oxfam’s values, in which Oxfam GB took a leadership role. Pertinently, it meant that the Oxfam GB Trustees and senior staff were coping with an entire new layer of financial demands and risky change management on top of the egregious risks already inherent in Oxfam’s work in up to 90 countries across the globe. This essential context is entirely missing from the Charity Commission’s Report.
  5. That context was well known to the Commission and could quite easily have been summarised. Failure to explore and describe it is particularly damaging for the purposes of understanding, as opposed to prosecution; of drawing the right conclusions; and of justice.

The repeated charges of “mismanagement”

  1. It is not difficult to see why the Inquiry wanted to identify instances of “mismanagement in the administration of the charity”, because this is the relevant criterion for issuing a formal Regulatory Warning to Oxfam GB.
  2. The effect of frequently repeating this phrase throughout the Report is, however, to create a humiliating impression of systematic incompetence and failure, particularly on the part of the Trustees and senior staff leadership. (That is what enabled the Commission to badge its Report so emphatically as “critical”, taking some media correspondents aback[4], in order to assuage public indignation and secure the objective of displaying a tough regulatory response.)
  3. In my opinion, however, most of the individual charges of mismanagement are, at best, contestable, partly because the Commission does not define it clearly enough. How is “mismanagement” different from a difficult and debateable judgement, a reasonable decision to give priority to something else which with hindsight one regrets, inconsistent implementation of policies and procedures which the Trustees are doing their best to address, or even an honest mistake in a high pressure world?
  4. I assess the individual examples of so-called “mismanagement” in the Appendix of the full written version of this paper, so you can see if you agree they are contestable or even untenable. I note that Andrew Hind concluded that the Inquiry’s conclusions do not fit the actual evidence adduced.
  5. All in all, in my opinion, the consequent impression of repeated incompetence is on closer inspection disproportionate and unfair, not least to the Trustees.

Drawing the Wrong Conclusions

  1. The greatest injustice of the Charity Commission’s Inquiry and Report lies in some of the conclusions that are promoted by the Commission through the media but that are not borne out by the detailed Report, nor by other evidence.
  2. The Conclusions section of the Report begins: “No charity is more important than the people it serves or the mission it pursues.” This forms the banner headline of the Commission’s press release launching the Report. But there is nowhere a shred of evidence that anyone in Oxfam thought that the charity was more important than the people it serves or its mission. Any inference that the Trustees and leadership were not completely focused on service to the mission and its beneficiaries is groundless.
  3. The next conclusion, nesting beneath the banner headline and taken up by the Commission’s Chief Executive, is that Oxfam GB had a culture of tolerating poor behaviour. The Chief Executive adds that the events in Haiti were symptoms of a wider problem of tolerating poor behaviour, and that Oxfam’s culture at times also lost sight of the values it stands for. This is unjust because
  • As the Independent Commission emphasises, there is no one culture in Oxfam or Oxfam GB, but multiple different ones.
  • It is not true that, in general, Oxfam’s culture or cultures tolerated poor behaviour. I have enumerated elsewhere[5] the strenuous, sustained efforts of Trustees and a growing cadre of Oxfam GB staff known internally as The Compliance Alliance to improve compliance with regulatory requirements and Oxfam’s own policies and regulations as well as manage the risky structural upheaval of creating the new Oxfam International.
  • Whatever else one might say about Oxfam’s investigation in Haiti, resulting in four dismissals and three forced resignations, it is hardly fair to call it tolerating poor behaviour.
  • By the device of personalising a supposedly monolithic culture, the Commission’s Chief Executive falls short of saying that the Trustees and staff leadership tolerated poor behaviour and lost sight of their values. But only just.
  1. The Chair of the Commission joins in saying that “no charity is so large….that it can afford to put its reputation ahead of the dignity and wellbeing of those it exists to protect”. The clear implication in context is that this is what Oxfam did. But this is simply not demonstrated by the Report into Oxfam GB. There is no evidence that considerations of reputation overrode concern for beneficiaries and others who came into contact with the charity. (Reputation was only a significant factor in the limited area of less than fully comprehensive reporting of the Haiti incident to big donors and the Charity Commission but this was not at the expense of concern for those coming into contact with the charity.) The Inquiry itself concluded that there was no cover up.
  2. The Chair adds that being a charity is not just about what you do but how you do it. If she means that Oxfam’s leaders were too focused on their mission to eliminate poverty and advance human rights and didn’t care enough about bad or uncharitable behaviour by themselves or their staff, that is not what the record shows is generally true. I want to put on record my view that the Trustees and senior leaders did NOT tolerate poor behaviour. They knew perfectly well that how you do things is crucially important. They acted “honestly and reasonably” throughout, to quote The Essential Trustee.

Conclusion

  1. The enormously hard work put into the Inquiry by the Commission and Oxfam GB has had some important, positive outcomes. The first of our four objectives may have been largely achieved.
  2. The Inquiry did not, however, find out in a calm and authoritative way what happened and why it happened, because it was more of a prosecution than a genuinely objective Inquiry. It never fully recovered from the “very angry and cross” attitude with which the Commission launched it.
  3. The attempt to draw the right lessons for the future was flawed, because the conclusions drawn by the leaders of the Commission and widely promoted via the media are not supported by the evidence of the Report (nor other sources) and hence are the wrong lessons.
  4. Finally, the Inquiry did not achieve consistently the objective of seeing that justice is done. In particular, justice was not done to the charity, its staff, volunteers and supporters, nor notably to its Trustees. This was because the Commission prioritised the imperative of producing a highly critical report over fairness and over the implicit pledge made to Trustees in The Essential Trustee.
  5. This is more significant than a bit of rough justice to a few individuals or a single charity. Trustees need to know that if they pursue their duties honestly and reasonably, to the best of their ability, they will be protected and supported by the Charity Commission and the courts if things go wrong. That is a foundation of Trusteeship, of society’s bargain with those who give up their time and energies for love of serving a charity. Where does the Inquiry into Oxfam leave us Trustees who thought we could rely on that bargain? For us, I am afraid, after the Oxfam Inquiry, in Robert Browning’s words, “Never glad confident morning again!”

 

Andrew Purkis,

September 2019

 

 

[1] My views are informed by a governance review which I conducted for Oxfam GB as an independent consultant in late 2017, to which a review of safeguarding governance in particular was added in early 2018. Those reviews were internal and remain confidential. They were both made available to the Charity Commission.

[2] A reference by the Country Director to “the change management process” is left unexplored and unexplained.

[3] https://andrewpurkis.wordpress.com/2019/06/19/lets-not-learn-the-wrong-lessons-from-oxfam/

[4] As the BBC’s analyst Manveau Rana interpreted it: “It is rare to see such strong criticism of a charity….the Report is incredibly strong and has done something to redress the Charity Commission’s own laxity over safeguarding in the past.”

 

[5] https://andrewpurkis.wordpress.com/2019/08/13/oxfam-gbs-culture-and-the-charity-commission/

 

The Practical Obstacles to Culture Change

 

  1. It is one thing to agree the need for culture change. It is another to deliver it in practice. I want to identify some of the main practical obstacles to culture change.
  2. The intention is to help charities to recognise and deal with these obstacles. It is also to discourage unrealistic expectations of a smooth ride if only we can improve awareness of problems in our cultures and the determination of our leaders to tackle them.
  3. I shall focus principally on international organisations but many of the points I make will apply to those working within the UK too.

Awareness

  1. In the wake of scandals hitting Save The Children, Oxfam, Amnesty International, Refuge, and others, and with ACEVO and other umbrella bodies taking the lead in exploring problems of bullying and racism in charities, culture change is on all our lips – rightly so. The preoccupation of many charity leaders, big donors and the Charity Commission is to increase the awareness of many charities that they actually have a cultural problem. Plenty more work is needed to spread that self-critical awareness.

Knowing the Changes You Want

  1. Once the awareness of cultural problems is achieved, much hard thinking is required on what kind of culture changes different charities consider to be necessary. If, for example, you think like Oxfam International’s recent Independent Commission, you may analyse your underlying cultural problems as stemming from patriarchy, post-colonial attitudes and racism. In that case the challenge is to address deep seated assumptions and patterns of behaviour that have soaked into societal cultures over many decades. On this view, urging people (as the Charity Commission does) to behave well, or charitably, or in conformity with public expectations, would not measure up to the challenge, because the underlying problems would not be tackled. Others will take a different view, focusing on discrete types of poor behaviour such as bullying, harassment, sexual abuse, discrimination and so on in the expectation that these can be addressed without an overarching feminist awareness.
  2. It is encouraging that more (but still too few) charities are having these debates. But once the awareness is raised and the direction of culture change is decided, vital as that is, the rest does not of course just fall into place.

Obstacles to Delivering Culture Change

  1. Whatever kind of significant culture change is proposed, we must be talking about a systematic programme of continuing awareness-raising, consistent leadership, commitment of much time to the production and effective enforcement of Codes and policies, constant encouragement to call out breaches of the agreed codes of behaviour and sufficient resources to sustain the momentum of culture change. This cannot be a one-off initiative, lest the powerful forces that caused the cultural problems in the first place reassert themselves. It has to be a permanent and continuing commitment. The practical difficulties are formidable. Here are some.
  2. Unfortunately, the desirable elements of a more virtuous or more feminist culture will sometimes be in tension with other important values. Passionate commitment to the cause, and going the extra mile for it, may be in tension with respect for work/life balance. The results of listening to and being guided by the views of your local partner organisations and users – excellent development practice – will not always indicate the same priorities as your own values-driven policies and rule books. The appetite to enter war and disaster zones to be alongside those in peril is in tension with the desire to eliminate risk of harm to staff and all those who come in contact with the charity (the Charity Commission’s definition of safeguarding). These tensions are not “solved” by having a clear statement of values and appetite for culture change. Each charity has to work out how these considerations are going to be weighted and held together.
  3. In most charities, there is a shortage of time and money to devote to guiding, discussing and embedding culture change inclusively and at length. Front line operations, and raising the money to pay for them, are often voraciously demanding. And the requirements of culture change are also in competition for attention with other priorities such as donor reporting, monitoring and evaluation of impact, risk management in all its dimensions and the many other aspects of organisational hygiene and fiduciary duties. Many donors are reluctant to allow enough money in their grants for culture change and many other important organisational requirements, in which case the money has to come from scarce unrestricted funds that are commonly already under great pressure.
  4. Culture change requires (among other things) carefully framed policies and Codes. But the volume and length of policies generated with the best of intentions from the centre can be impossible to handle. One big international charity recently had something like 75 policies on its intranet. The more conscientious a charity is about clarifying the rules, behaviours and systems that must be adhered to, the bigger this problem can become. Obviously you can’t expect anyone to be au fait with so many policies, so you have somehow to establish realistic hierarchies: gold starred policies are so important that everyone has to know them, others can be referred to when necessary – but it’s not so easy to get agreement on what the “top” priority policies should be and charities are often tempted to cross refer in each gold starred one to half a dozen or more others which in real life many staff and volunteers are not going to know. Another common problem is that, again with the best of intentions, the policies are very long and detailed, since the authors don’t want to leave any gaps, with the result that they are indigestible and inaccessible. What happens so easily is that everyone is “expected” in theory to know key policies, and the Code of Conduct, but these are sometimes too numerous and long for this aspiration to be real.
  5. Linked to this, unless you have a central staff with plenty of time, the policies will not all be renewed regularly and policies will start to become out of date as attention shifts to the latest more pressing issue.
  6. Then there is the bugbear of staff turnover. You have just trained up a cadre of focal persons to take the lead in some issue such as fraud, security or sexual exploitation, harassment and abuse, when you find that several of them have moved to another job, been poached by another INGO or the UN or private companies, or redeployed to deal with an emergency in another country. Others fall ill or leave to care for a sick child or relative, so you have to start again. Meanwhile, a manager who has built up expertise and momentum in a lead role in this area then leaves and HR struggle to replace him or her on the salaries that the charity can afford. Delays mount, momentum sags, other crises supervene. Time and again, breaches of agreed policy, failures to implement agreed culture-related initiatives on schedule, poor record-keeping and missing audit trails, come down to staff turnover, vacancies or chronic difficulties in recruiting and retaining competent staff.
  7. I suspect that the low status of HR is a further obstacle in many charities. They can sometimes be perceived as technical functionaries that may not really “get” the mission. Safeguarding specialists can be wary of HR as too close to management to be accessible to survivors, or lacking in feminist awareness. It must sometimes feel to HR that nobody loves them. But in the end it is the cycle of recruitment, induction, job descriptions, performance management, appraisal and criteria for advancement that must integrate the goals and practice of culture change if that change is going to stick. That requires higher status, respect and influence for HR than they usually enjoy today.
  8. Restructuring  is like Trotsky’s permanent revolution for many charities. This is sometimes to align governance and accountabilities better with values, more often in response to a shortfall of funding or ending of a grant. It sucks energy and attention away from all sorts of continuing initiatives relating to culture, HR and organisational hygiene. Massive, sudden increases in staff, eg in places where humanitarian emergencies strike, can have the same disruptive effect.
  9. Good development principles and practice are not always easily compatible with multiple requirements relevant to culture agreed at the centre (whether spontaneously from within the charity or insisted upon by regulators and big donors in the global North). When out of one side of the mouth you are trying to encourage a sense of confidence, empowerment, agenda-setting and can-do enterprise on the part of local partner organisations, communities, social movements of the poor and staff teams in developing countries, it is not so easy to say too much out of the other side of your mouth about prioritising scrupulous record- keeping, audit trails, the reading and learning of policies, and compulsory days out for training on good HR practice, Health and Safety, security, refresher courses on the Code of Conduct and other aspects of safeguarding in conformity with common standards and policies implemented from the centre.
  10. Indeed, perceptions of those kinds of demands from the centre can easily become infused with deep-seated resentment on the part of many activists in the global South. Clashes with “the centre” over priorities for scarce time and money are constantly likely to be seen through this lens: “would-be master, you are using the power of money to dictate to me what I must prioritise! That is not partnership! You are showing your true post-colonial colours!”
  11. Finally for now, in many organisations trying to accomplish a great purpose, there is frustration with the perceived constant demands of the centre for detailed information, accountability and gold plated standards of audit. Impatience and rolling eyeballs are familiar in the NHS, the BBC, or many local authorities groaning as they receive the next central circular, just as in local UK charities that are part of a national network. Exactly similar groans go up across the globe as international charities try to achieve better shared standards and consistency across their diverse stakeholders. Certainly, many activists’ and local partners’ gut response to the earnest circulars and requests of HR and other central Departments will resemble the famous contemporary satire on the pernickety demands of Whitehall for financial accountability in the Peninsular War. A purported letter from the Duke of Wellington to the Foreign Office apologises sarcastically for issuing the wrong number of jars of raspberry jam to a cavalry regiment and asks for “elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:
  • To train an army of uniformed clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London, or perchance
  • To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your Obedient Servant, Wellington.”

It can be done – but not easily

  1. The comment of Rory Stewart, Secretary of State for International Development when the Charity Commission Report on Oxfam GB came out in June 2019, was wiser than most. Speaking of turning round the fundamental problems illuminated by the Haiti scandal, he said: “This is a long-term process, in which there are no easy answers or room for complacency”.
  2. He is right. For all the reasons above, it will certainly not be plain sailing. Many charities face a future where a much larger proportion of their unrestricted donations will have to be spent on internal structures of continuing culture change, hygiene, risk management, training, policy formation, monitoring, audit and record keeping. A larger proportion of staff and partner time will have to be spent in introspective cultural explorations and awareness-raising. The donating public and many big donors will not like that. Sensitivities in developing countries about powerful members in the global North attaching more onerous conditions to the distribution of money will be sharpened. Political tensions within their confederations may be exacerbated, and good development principles may come under strain. Maybe, more risk-averse Trustees who see how the media and Charity Commission treated Oxfam will be tempted to abandon people in the most risky and chaotic environments to their fate. Meanwhile, different media scandals will emerge in the charitable world and attention will move to other issues.
  3. Safeguarding must and will be better. Toxic cultures must and will be rooted out. Some of these obstacles can be circumnavigated or diminished, but not all, and not completely. It is a long term project fraught with difficulties, which must be acknowledged squarely and not minimised.

 

Oxfam GB’s Culture and the Charity Commission

  1. Has the Charity Commission been fair to Oxfam GB?
  2. Regulator finds culture of “tolerating poor behaviour””: so says the Charity Commission’s press release accompanying its Report into Oxfam GB. Their Chief Executive’s verdict is that what went wrong in Haiti did not happen in isolation, and that “over a period of years, Oxfam’s internal culture tolerated poor behaviour, and at times lost sight of the values it stands for.” The charity’s leadership may have been “well intentioned”, she continues, but “good intentions have limited value when they are not matched with resources, robust systems and processes that are implemented on the ground, and more importantly, an organisational culture that prioritises keeping people safe.”
  3. There are a number of problems with this critique:
  • There is no one “internal culture” in Oxfam
  • Oxfam’s cultures did not in general tolerate poor behaviour
  • Keeping people safe through safeguarding can be only one priority among many.

We shall look at these in turn.

  1. I have drawn on insights I gained when carrying out an independent governance review for Oxfam in late 2017 and early 2018, the details of which remain confidential. I have not been asked by anybody to write this and have not discussed it with, or shown it to, anyone connected with Oxfam now or in the past.

There is no one “internal culture” in Oxfam

  1. The Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change (IC) set up by Oxfam International emphasised: “the evaluation of Oxfam’s response (to safeguarding and HR challenges) must consider that Oxfam is a large, heterogeneous organisation with many different organisational cultures.”  Exactly. The IC was only in part referring to the different cultures of the originating Oxfam Affiliates in Northern countries, of which Oxfam GB was one; the cultural differentiation goes much deeper.
  2. In Oxfam GB, we learn from the Charity Commission’s own Report, the Oxfam GB Trustees looking at lessons learned from the Haiti investigation in 2011 noted a suspected particular cultural problem in one part of the charity’s humanitarian workforce: “…. the Oxfam GB’s humanitarian Department was looking into whether there was a culture within the Humanitarian Support Personnel community that increased the likelihood of the kind of behaviour that had taken place in Haiti.” What was being alluded to is a particular community of sometimes hard-bitten, hard-drinking expat white men, who were accustomed to being scrambled to cope with disasters and emergencies at short notice anywhere in the world and whose distinctive lifestyle was entirely different from many of their local partners and staff or their Oxfam colleagues in more settled parts of the charity.
  3. The Independent Commission (IC) also reported that “The IC has heard many positive examples of teams and groups of Oxfam colleagues having very thoughtful discussions to air issues around power abuse, workplace culture, and approaches to safeguarding”: those kinds of teams and discussions are just as much part of “Oxfam’s culture” as the hard bitten expats expelled from Haiti. So were the many women’s gatherings among Oxfam GB’s staff encouraged by the Head of Gender Justice and Women’s Rights who sat as of right at all Oxfam GB Council (Board of Trustees) meetings.
  4. In truth, there are many cultures, not one, and the great challenge of managing relatively decentralised and heterogeneous international organisations is to work out how best in practice to impose common policies and standard practices successfully across such a diverse universe – and at what cost.

Oxfam’s cultures did not, in general, “tolerate poor behaviour”

  1. Indeed, in the years after 2012 there was already a growing community of staff in Oxfam GB focused on improving the charity’s record of compliance with regulatory policies and Oxfam’s own policies and rules, partly at the insistence of the Trustees[1]. They had something of a shared esprit de corps and were sometimes known colloquially as “The Compliance Alliance”. The Compliance Alliance, grinding away at gradually improving standards of compliance across the organisation, with generally strong Trustee support, was part of Oxfam GB’s internal culture. It had successes as well as frustrations and failures: Oxfam GB won the Charities Against Fraud Award in 2018.
  2. Anybody reading Oxfam GB’s Council (Board of Trustees) Minutes, which the Charity Commission investigators will of course have done, will know, too, how often the Trustees insisted on continuing efforts to improve compliance with policies and regulatory requirements – on top of managing the massive risks involved in creating the new Oxfam International. They will also be familiar with at least two major compliance-related initiatives reported on regularly at Council as well as the relevant sub-committee over many months, initiated as a result of forensic, persistent Trustee scrutiny.
  3. It is an irony that these Trustees should now have to endure the Chief Executive’s imputation that, though possibly well intentioned, they were responsible for a culture of tolerating poor behaviour. Nobody repeated more often than the Chair and other Trustees of Oxfam GB, the very homily handed down to them now by the Charity Commission Chief Executive, namely, that policies and plans that were not actually implemented consistently on the ground were of limited value.
  4. Even if we go back to the events in Haiti in 2011, it is worth recalling that the investigation by Oxfam GB was triggered by a whistle-blower, because Oxfam unlike some other charities at that time had a whistleblowing policy (translated into five languages). A senior team from Oxford was in Haiti starting the investigation quickly, as a result of which four staff were summarily dismissed and three resigned, including the Country Director, all done and dusted within two months of receiving the whistle-blower’s allegations. These disciplinary offences were judged against the Code of Conduct circulated to all staff, which again some other charities did not have at all. The purge was followed up with a comprehensive action plan, discussed and agreed by the Trustees who say they received reports and were aware of the follow up at all times. Whatever the flaws, it is inaccurate and unfair to call all that “tolerating poor behaviour”.
  5. When it comes to tolerating, or not tolerating, poor behaviour, the Independent Commission (IC) looking at Oxfam International painted a mixed picture of Oxfam’s cultures. I do not minimize the major problems uncovered by the IC, nor has Oxfam done so. Shockingly, for instance, its culture survey of 4000 staff in December 2018 (across the whole Confederation, not just Oxfam GB) showed that almost half of the respondents believe that those who violate Oxfam’s values are not held to account. It is not, however, clear how far this result was reflecting their own actual experience (as opposed, say, to reading that the Country Director of Haiti in 2011 had been allowed to resign rather than be dismissed). For the survey also found that 80 per cent of respondents said they feel comfortable reporting sexual exploitation, harassment or abuse, even if that leaves a significant minority who did not. 75 per cent felt they can raise difficult issues with their manager. 78 per cent felt that their manager behaves in line with Oxfam’s values. Summarising, the IC says that “Although a large number of surveyed staff across the confederation pointed to positive work environments, this situation was not universal” and there were too many toxic ones, too.
  6. So we can all agree with the IC, Oxfam and the Charity Commission that sustained culture change is required, but that is not at all the same as saying that Oxfam International or Oxfam GB had a (single) culture that in general tolerated poor behaviour. On the contrary, more than half the battle is to build on the good practice, idealism and healthy cultures already in evidence, so that they become more consistently the norm.

Safeguarding is one priority among many

  1. The Chief Executive identifies that the most important requirement now is “an organisational culture that prioritises keeping people safe”. This masks stubborn complexities.
  2. Firstly, one of the most important aspects of keeping people safe concerns security, Health and Safety and what is known in humanitarian circles as Safe Programming. These are an integral part of the Charity Commission’s own deliberately broad definition of safeguarding, yet they were apparently excluded from the Inquiry into safeguarding in Oxfam GB. However hard and successfully the Oxfam GB Trustees and staff may have toiled away on security issues, for instance, to avoid serious risks of death and injury, these would be excluded from the Inquiry’s reckoning.
  3. Secondly, if your organisational culture were such as to prioritise, over all other considerations, eliminating harm to anyone as a result of coming into contact with your charity (the Commission’s definition of safeguarding), you would withdraw from war zones or unstable earthquake zones and floods altogether and leave the affected people to their fate. This would be a paradoxical outcome in the name of keeping people safe.
  4. Thirdly, your safety policies cannot be absolute priorities in many situations on the front line. For partner organisations supporting tribal people being driven out of their traditional homes by vested interests and State security forces, to take one random example, it is not always a priority to insist on a seat belt or attend a refresher workshop on the Code of Conduct. These different priorities have to be balanced against each other. It’s messy.
  5. Fourthly, no one requirement such as prevention of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse can be the  priority. There are different aspects of safeguarding competing for attention and resources, such as security, Health and Safety, Prevention of Sexual Harassment and Abuse, non-sexual Harassment and Bullying, and, in the humanitarian sphere, Safe Programming. Then there are all the other risk management issues that have been identified as priorities by the Charity Commission in recent years[2]. There is also the vital task of assessing your actual impact. There may also be painful and distracting restructuring to live within the charity’s means or adapt to the ending of a grant. On top of that, I explained in a previous blog[3] the context of managing a whole new dimension of risk in Oxfam’s case arising from the courageous decision to create a newly empowered Oxfam International as a way of delivering Oxfam’s mission more in line with its values. It is impossible in real life for Trustees to treat one priority in isolation from, or overriding, all these others. To secure greatly increased attention and resources for safeguarding is essential, but it will be extremely difficult because all the other priorities will not go away and some of them may suffer.
  6. Fifthly, in particular, there are potential contradictions between the laudable aims of
  • imposing multiple, centralised and raised standards of assurance and
  • the desire to be guided by the priorities of the people you are seeking to empower: local Affiliates, local communities, local partner NGOs and social movements of the poor.

I shall elaborate on this in a future blog.

The Ends and Means of Learning from Oxfam

  1. The Charity Commission had to produce a report, regulatory response and Press Release that assuaged public indignation, shocked the rest of the sector as well as Oxfam into improving the quality of safeguarding, showed what sort of improvements were required, and convinced politicians and the public that egregious mistakes and wrong-doing will be treated robustly by the Commission. These are important objectives and may have been largely achieved. But it is also important to be fair-minded, balanced and careful in public pronouncements about a charity and its leaders. As the Charity Commission’s Chair is fond of telling us, it is not only what you achieve that matters – it’s also how you do it.

 

[1] They included new posts such as a Head of Compliance, and officers responsible for internal audit (with its direct line through to the Trustees as well as a line management report to the senior staff team), for legal compliance, for financial probity and hygiene, for governance, for risk management and a range of other fiduciary responsibilities and safeguarding in all its aspects – security and Health and Safety as well as prevention of sexual harassment and abuse.

[2] These include cleaning up fundraising; avoiding aid diversion to terrorism; combatting fraud and corruption; unacceptable political activity; data protection scandals; and improving transparency

[3] Let’s Not Draw the Wrong Lessons from Oxfam, Civil Society News, 19 June 2019

Open Letter to Nicky Morgan: Grab the Community Wealth Fund with both hands!

Dear Nicky Morgan,

Congratulations on your appointment as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Your responsibilities include Government policy towards civil society. I am going to leave it to others in civil society to tell you all the important things on their wish list, because I want to focus on one big opportunity which is yours for the taking. I urge you to give your strong, purposeful support to the idea of a Community Wealth Fund.

In a nutshell, the idea is that up to £2 billion from unclaimed assets such as bonds, shares, pension funds and insurance policies could be the basis of an endowed fund to invest in the social capital of deprived communities. This could include the supporting infrastructure for local voluntary action, facilitators, assets and supportive resources to make it more likely that people in deprived areas will participate in communal activities and decision-making. A full explanation is here:

Strong resourceful communities

Please consider the following points:

  1. This would cost the Government virtually nothing.
  2. It gets right away from the seedy tradition of Ministers helping themselves to dormant public assets  in order to fund (not too effectively) their favourite or politically popular individual charities
  3. It counters the argument that this Conservative Government won’t care about the most deprived communities because they are more interested in tax cuts and the squeezed middle classes
  4. It does something for communities left behind by globalisation, who might bear the brunt of any economic impacts from a No Deal Brexit. These are also the places where pubs, libraries, community halls, shops, banks, and other meeting places, even chapels and churches, are even more likely to be boarded up and abandoned than elsewhere  – loneliness and deprivation with a sharper edge.
  5. For a party that believes in active citizenship and taking back control, this would actually deliver some of the real means to local people of having more control over the decisions that affect them. It would engender more confidence about mobilising both to improve their neighbourhoods themselves and assert their rights and demands.
  6. You will also know from your wide experience of education that public services enjoying more vigorous voluntary participation and support from civil society generally fare better than those with weaker civil society and public participation. So this is part of supporting and complementing state services  whether organised centrally or locally, particularly since this huge potential boost to local civil society does not come at the taxpayers’ expense.
  7. People in your Party often particularly dislike the idea that we must rely on state action and higher taxation to meet all the ills of society, and prefer to emphasise  more voluntary citizen action and self help. The biggest problem with that preference is that without some sort of assistance or loading of the dice by the state, more prosperous areas of the country are the ones which spontaneously create a stronger civil society with more voluntary organisations and volunteering. The Community Wealth Fund is specifically designed to help rectify this basic injustice and imbalance.
  8. So do look at this one particularly carefully. It has wide support from important organisations in the civil society sector. The idea needs careful development in detail, and your support will be a crucial part of that process. It requires momentum and optimism from you, forging a constructive partnership with civil society with the aim of  helping some of our most deprived fellow citizens to have more of a sense of hope and agency – and take back a bit of control. –

So please grab this opportunity with both hands!

Good luck and best wishes,

Andrew Purkis

Two Johnsons Compared: LBJ and Boris

You might suppose that, apart from their names, Lyndon Johnson and Boris Johnson have extraordinarily little in common. In many ways that is true, but there is also something very significant that they share.

First, the differences. LBJ was immensely tall and gangly with enormous ears, deeply lined features and a habit of grabbing people by the lapel and invading their personal space – all very different from our own Mr Blobby. LBJ had no literary pretensions, had no gilded home life as a child or young man and did not throw bread rolls at people at Harvard or Princetown as he had nothing like Boris’s Oxford education. Indeed, LBJ was formed in the bitter Hill Country of Texas, brilliantly described in Robert Caro’s awesome biography, where his father ended up bust and humiliated, leaving Lyndon with an irresistible psychological yearning to win power and respect whatever the price and above all other considerations in life. In pursuit of his goals, he was a brilliant reader of people, especially their weak spots, and a careful listener when he needed to be. He had a genius for finding solutions to seemingly intractable political problems and was a brilliant  persuader and negotiator. I do not know if Boris shares any of those political gifts – we’ll soon find out. But there is another clear difference which leads me to doubt it: LBJ worked himself to the bone in pursuit of his goals, obsessively, day and night, leaving absolutely no detail to chance. Nobody could accuse Boris Johnson of that. LBJ never suffered from laziness or a sense of entitlement, leaving details to others.

So what did these two Johnsons have in common? Well, they both have a line in obscene swearing, and probably most of us would not envy the wife or partner of either. But the most important thing they share is an almost complete lack of adherence to any principle. (I shall come back to that “almost” in a moment.) Power and ambition comes first for both men. On civil rights, for example, LBJ could for many years simultaneously persuade the Southerners that he was one of them, and Liberals that he was really one of them. This mirrored many previous examples as he clawed his way to power, saying to each constituency what he thought it wanted to hear. Equally, it is a mystery to most of us as to what Boris Johnson stands for, apart from Boris Johnson. In both cases, they could the day after tomorrow be arguing with passion the exact opposite of the case it suits them to argue passionately today – and they are both very good actors.

If you assume this characteristic is self evidently a weakness, please think again. It did not do LBJ much harm. Nor has it done much harm to Boris so far, despite all the huffing from the Dominic Grieves or Max Hastings. The lack of ideological encumbrance can be a gift. If LBJ had been a lifelong Liberal, he could not possibly have persuaded the US Senate in 1957 to pass the first civil rights bill for many decades. He could do it because he was so good at talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, combined with political acumen and ruthless application of pressure plus cynical alliances. Those who may be rubbing their hands on the Left of politics because they think Boris Johnson will be a right wing ideologue driving reasonable people away are probably making a big mistake, precisely because Boris is not an ideologue or even an idealist, having no apparent principles whatever. That means he can do all sorts of things that the true believers – the Free Traders, the Market Economists, the Shrink the Staters, the true Little Englanders, the Blimps, the social reactionaries, the pro-Business and pro-private-sector zealots – would never do. Political calculation is surely Boris’s only constraint. He will do whatever he thinks is required to stay in power once he has it. To use his own recent phrase, expect a “Minestrone” of a Government if Brexit allows, with lots of tasty ingredients that appeal to different political constituencies. That makes him a much more formidable political opponent than some on the Left may assume.

Maybe there are straws in the wind in his track record as London Mayor. There is some truth in the claim that he “hugged” his public servants. I have heard people from the quite radical organisation London Citizens, closely associated with the Living Wage, praise him as a collaborator in some dimensions by comparison with Ken Livingstone. Boris made mistakes all right, but was hardly to be pigeon-holed as a right-wing ideologue; he did what he thought he had to do to remain in office. He would surely do the same if he were Prime Minister. Whether he is skilful, astute, determined, driven and hard working enough to rival LBJ is quite another matter.

I said that LBJ was “almost” completely devoid of principle. His thirst for power always came first, overwhelming any other principle. But when the cause of the poor and down-trodden became aligned with his political ambitions, he showed, according to Robert Caro,  that he did have principles after all. His experience of poverty and humilation in the Hill Country had left an additional legacy inside him, and it showed in 1957 and later when he did more as President for black American rights, arguably, than any US President apart from Abraham Lincoln. If ever Prime Minister Boris Johnson feels secure in his powerful position, will there be any comparable revelation? Is there something, once ambition for power is satisfied, that he might then want to do for more principled reasons? Only then would we find out if Boris Johnson has “almost” no principles, like LBJ, or none at all. In either case: ideologues and idealists, beware! Politicians who have no (or almost no) principles can be a lot more effective than you like to think.