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.


  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.

“Once an ActionAider, always an ActionAider”: why?

Why is ActionAid so special to those who have worked in it?

  1. I have just stepped down from the international Board of ActionAid International (AAI) after six years, having served previously as Chair of ActionAid UK. During that time I have watched several key staff who had left ActionAid return, with the feeling that they were coming back home. Many Board members who finish their terms of office keep a special place for ActionAid in their hearts. I know I shall. No doubt other great secular charities have the same effect, as faith charities can do, on those who commit themselves to them, but ActionAid is the one I know that has engendered the deepest sense of enduring loyalty, identity and hope. I shall try to explain why.

Rooted in communities and movements of the poor and excluded

  1. To understand ActionAid, you have ideally to sit cross-legged on a grubby tarpaulin in a circle with representatives of some of the poorest, most multiply disadvantaged people on earth, listening as they gradually find the courage and confidence to define what they need and want and to set about obtaining it. These are the REFLECT circles, drawing on simple methods of participatory learning and empowerment that are part of ActionAid’s DNA.
  2. As people’s demands begin to crystallise, ActionAid and its local partners work with them to fashion a strategy including priorities, winning access to those with power and responsibility and holding them to account for their obligations to the people they govern or employ. Service delivery is part of the mix, but not for its own sake: it is one part of a wider approach based on mobilising people to assert their own rights.
  3. A traditional concept of charity involves one fortunate and wealthier side giving opportunities and resources to chosen, less fortunate people, without necessarily changing the unequal power relations between the two sides. ActionAid International long ago turned its back officially on that model. It is more interested in enabling people with apparently no power or control over their lives progressively to develop, assert and use it. Correcting the unequal power relationships that underpin all sorts of injustices, including poverty, is at the core of ActionAid’s whole approach. Yet this is not principally a function of intellectualised analysis: it is all rooted in those circles of people reflecting on their lives, taking action to assert their rights, learning from their success or failure, trying again, linking up with others in the same situation, giving each other hope, and creating social movements for change led by poor and marginalised people themselves. ActionAid is an unapologetic champion and supporter of those social movements for justice; of progressive people power.
  4. One of the reasons you never fully “leave” ActionAid is the memories of those sessions listening to the voices of, say, Muslim women living as a small minority in Nepal, or the manual scavengers among Dalit people in India, or abused women in Kenya mobilising against violence, or street vendors, or sex workers, bonded labourers, the landless, the slum dwellers, the vulnerable migrant workers, the fisher folk thrown out of their traditional fishing grounds and beaches, people fleeing from brutal land grabs by powerful corporations and Government cronies – now speaking out, with their own confident leadership – especially women’s leadership – joining forces with others, learning to be disciplined as well as courageous, demanding, demonstrating, negotiating, strategizing as circumstances might dictate, and refusing to accept the gross injustices that are part of their daily lives. That is ActionAid. Who could just walk away and forget that?

In it for the long term

  1. There is a paradoxical reason why ActionAid adopted this radical approach to development. It is that its principal funding model has been conservative: child sponsorship. You might assume that child sponsorship is the epitome of traditional charity: a powerful and wealthy person with a conscience in the global north takes pity on a child in a developing country and creates better life chances for that child. And child sponsorship can indeed be like that, but there is another side to it. For child sponsorship provides long-lasting, faithful giving at a high level, with few strings attached. Like Old Father Thames, it just keeps rolling along. And the receiving organisation has great independence as well as time. So ActionAid and its local partners do not limit their ambitions to the compass of a three year grant, but create locally based rights programmes lasting ten years or more. That makes possible the gradual development of women’s leadership even where there are deeply entrenched cultural resistances. It makes possible the progressive growth of confidence and agency in communities used to despair. Bottom up becomes thinkable and doable, and can spread through linkages to the regional, national and global. This long term perspective is a crucial part of ActionAid’s distinctive contribution over the years.
  2. So ActionAid has sought to fashion child sponsorship so that it does not contradict its radical programming and commitment to a human rights based approach. The child represents the hopes and life chances not only of children generally but the whole community on whom that child depends. The child needs education, one of ActionAid’s traditional heartlands. The child will also join clubs and young people’s groups and movements to assert child rights and grow into activists for a better world. I have come across ActionAid staff and Board members who were once children sponsored by ActionAid. Despite all these efforts, elements of contradiction can persist. The search is on for alternatives to child sponsorship that may produce the same benefits for people’s long term struggles – which is not at all easy.

Feminism and women’s rights

  1. Many years’ experience of rooted campaigns for human rights and justice, already sketched, have educated ActionAid not only into championing women’s rights as key to development – which INGO or even Government donor these days does not? – but as an inherent part of seeking social justice for its own sake. Women in all those REFLECT circles have learnt, and we have learnt with them, that patriarchy is a dominant factor in their traditional powerlessness and stunted life chances. So a preoccupation with enabling women’s rights and women’s leadership has become ever more salient in ActionAid’s work. And once you recognise the baleful nature of patriarchy and its toxic cultural norms, seeing how the political and personal intersect, you cannot but begin to notice that all is not well in your own organisation and behaviour. When I first joined ActionAid, the “f” word – feminism – created too much anxiety and confusion to make it into the international strategy. Not now. The Federation has now committed itself to model feminist leadership, interpreting its unchanging values and all its strategic commitments, both external and internal, through a feminist lens. A major consultative and learning exercise on feminist leadership has produced the Top Ten Basics of feminist leadership as we seek to understand and effect it, now being rolled out across the Federation. Any organisation that claims to be a model for others is setting itself up for a big fall, and ActionAid does not purport to do so. Our efforts have been imperfect and there is a massive journey ahead before all sorts of manifestations of patriarchy will be overcome. But ActionAid is at least deliberately and determinedly on that journey.

Transformed Governance – shifting power downwards

  1. Many readers may know that ActionAid was one of the first to move its official Headquarters to the global South – in this case, South Africa. But more important was the sharing of power. Instead of barking orders out from London, ActionAid UK agreed to share power in line with its values and beliefs that more equal power relationships were the key to a more just world free of poverty. Country programmes would be encouraged to put down roots, and in due course develop their own local boards, aiming to become an equal member of a new Federation. All members of the Federation, regardless of size and income, would be equal and have the same voting power in the Federation’s sovereign Assembly. The Assembly would be composed of all the members, a large majority of whom are developing countries. Meanwhile, the developing country members are accountable to their own assemblies, in many cases including representatives of social movements, communities of people suffering from exclusion and poverty, and young people with uncertain futures. This works patchily in practice, but nonetheless among INGOs ActionAid has thrust power and accountability down closer to the people living in poverty than most of its peers.
  2. The Assembly appoints an international Board which leads the Federation and employs the General Secretariat. Assembly, Board and Secretariat are all magnificently diverse international bodies. It has been symbolically important that the Chairs of the Federation have so far been strong, black African women, but surrounded by fellow Board and Assembly members from every continent, and an astonishing variety of ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds, bound together by a passionate commitment to ActionAid and its cause. To be part of these bodies and work with the Secretariat has been one of the great privileges of my life. On a good day, it also makes for dancing, singing and enormous celebrations of common humanity and values as all the barriers fall away.
  3. Needless to say, the power of money does not die just because you change your model of governance. On the other hand, I have many times seen motions from richer members of ActionAid voted down by the majority. Real power sharing is imperfect work in progress. Feminist leadership is imperfect work in progress. Bringing decisions down to the social movements of people living in poverty is imperfect work in progress. Empowering movements of young people is imperfect work in progress. ActionAid is imperfect work in progress. Which great charity isn’t? But I hope to have conveyed why I love this one. In a world where so much that is wrong is attributable to the control and abuse of power, ActionAid is, to me and so many others, particularly poor and excluded women, a beacon of hope. Stay strong, ActionAiders!


Let’s Not Learn the Wrong Lessons from Oxfam


Lessons drawn from the Oxfam safeguarding scandal have frequently been couched in moral terms – we should behave more charitably and selflessly, and give more priority to being ethical. But Oxfam’s failure not to invest more time and resources from 2012 into safeguarding was not to do with any moral or ethical deficit in its leadership. It was to do with a daunting range of competing claims on their attention, all of them morally compelling. Oxfam’s leaders were managing a whole new dimension of risk arising from a values-driven cultural and organisational upheaval resulting in the creation of Oxfam International as a better way of pursuing their mission. This context, lacking from the Charity Commission’s report, will help us to draw the right lessons, rather than unhelpful moral soundbites.

  1. There has been a high moral tone in the reactions to the report of the Charity Commission on the Oxfam scandal. I want to explore the assumptions behind these reactions[1]. My perspective is informed by having conducted an independent governance review for Oxfam GB shortly before the safeguarding scandal really took off, followed by a review of safeguarding governance which, in the words of the Charity Commission’s report, was overtaken by events in the shape of further revelations, the Charity Commission’s statutory Inquiry and independent reviews commissioned by them. The contents of my reviews remain confidential.  I am writing here to express my personal opinions only, not at the behest or on behalf of anyone in or connected with Oxfam. Nobody in or connected with Oxfam has seen this blog before publication.
  2. In her Foreword to the Report, the Chair of the Charity Commission says “Leadership of any size of charity means pursuing a charitable mission selflessly and putting that mission before anything else”. The implication in this context is that Oxfam’s leaders were guilty of putting selfish considerations ahead of their mission. She continues: “ultimately being a charity is more than just what you do, it is about the way in which you do it.” In her speeches she has elaborated that charities need to change their behaviour and attitudes to become more selfless and charitable as defined by public expectations. The Chief Executive of the Charity Commission writes 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 device of personalising a culture falls short of saying in terms that the Trustees and staff leaders of Oxfam tolerated poor behaviour and lost sight of their values – but only just. NCVO has said “…once again the key lesson for all of us is that, in order to “do good” and create positive change in the world, we must also “be good” and operate at the highest ethical standards.”
  3. Oxfam has repeatedly apologised for the unacceptable actions of some of its representatives in Haiti, breaching its own Code of Conduct, and for the flaws in the response and subsequent reporting by its leadership in Oxford in 2011. They have also acknowledged that the investment of resources in its specialist safeguarding unit since 2012 was inadequate: this is the time period on which I want to focus. They have accepted the findings of the Charity Commission Inquiry and are working on a major change programme. Oxfam have taken a mighty hit on behalf of all of us who were no more, and in many cases less, aware and well equipped than Oxfam in the dimension of safeguarding and aspects of HR culture. There are plenty of vital lessons for all of us from the Charity Commission Report and the parallel Oxfam Independent Commission Report. Let us make sure they are the right lessons.


The Evidence does not support sweeping generalisations about moral or ethical failures by Oxfam’s leadership


  1. It is one thing to display moral and ethical flaws. It is another thing to make difficult choices between many different requirements, all morally and ethically weighty, competing for attention and resources, in the years after 2012. The problem was not that Oxfam’s leaders were not good, ethical people, working hard for Oxfam to be good as well as do good. They were. With the awareness of hindsight they would obviously have made different choices and paid more attention to safeguarding, but that is not the same as implying they were selfish or promoting concerns other than the mission.
  2. A little context may help, which for whatever reason was not brought out in the Charity Commission Report. In this period post 2012 Oxfam was turning itself into a reformed Confederation. Instead of being a looser association of different Oxfams, controlled from the global north, resulting sometimes in six or more different Oxfams operating in the same developing country with different systems, cultures and priorities, a truly enormous effort was made to create a powerful Oxfam International. This would be based eventually in the global South, and led by the iconic Winnie Biniyama from Uganda. It would be a unified operation managing all Oxfam’s programmes while one (not up to six or more) Northern member provided the logistical and organisational back-up in each country. Regional structures were removed and replaced with other arrangements, and responsibility for other Confederation-wide functions (such as HR, security, and safeguarding) would in time be transferred to Oxfam International. That is a highly oversimplified account of a mind-blowingly complex set of negotiations and an implementation process devouring much leadership attention during these years.
  3. The aim – fundamentally ethical – was precisely to attend not just to the “worthy” cause of poverty reduction and human rights but to the way in which the cause should be pursued. The driver was a desire to achieve an organisation that more truly reflected Oxfam’s values about empowerment and putting the needs of the world’s poor above the sectional or selfish interests of different Oxfams from developed countries.  It was also to eliminate waste of charitable resources and incoherence, empower an international staff closer to the people in developing countries themselves, working in a united way to a strategy agreed by all Oxfam’s constituent parts, achieving greater impact. It was a major sharing of power – not easy for any organisation like Oxfam GB and the other powerful Oxfam Affiliates to contemplate.
  4. None played a more critical leadership role in this huge cultural and logistical upheaval than Oxfam GB, whose unrestricted funds were stretched to the limit by the demands of financing this period of transformation and enabling Oxfam International to achieve the Confederation’s vision in practice. It involved many painful staff cuts in the Oxfam GB staff establishment across the globe. In my view it was risky, courageous, necessary, expensive, and the complete opposite of selfish or unethical or not being good. It was precisely about putting mission ahead of everything else. It is still work in progress, and further radical reform would be needed to achieve the level of power-sharing and democratisation of the organisation with which I am connected, ActionAid. But still, the transformation has been a huge achievement – on top of the work Oxfam does every day anyway!
  5. Now consider the implications for the leadership of Oxfam GB – senior staff and Trustees, particularly when it comes to handling risks of different kinds. What were the priorities for attention? There were enormous risks in the radical alteration of different streams of accountability, responsibility and money flowing through Oxfam’s complex structures. How could risks be handled when up to six Affiliates in a country handed employer, financial and HR functions over to one plus Oxfam International, in one country after another where Oxfam worked? When would it be safe enough for different functions previously carried out by Oxfam GB to be transferred to Oxfam International? On exactly what basis and timescale? How would the envisaged assignment of management authority to Oxfam International sit alongside the continuing responsibility of Oxfam GB to be employers of the staff in many countries and provide key infrastructure , services and money – and where would that leave the fiduciary and legal responsibilities of the GB Trustees? And how could they ensure the whole change was actually working well for beneficiaries, despite the upheaval? When it came to risk management and organisational improvement, this was the number one concern of the GB Trustees and key staff leaders for years. If you give away and share power, for value-based and ethical reasons, what happens to your responsibilities – to millions of beneficiaries, to donors, to regulators, to the law? This was an entire layer of risk management on top of the “normal” egregious demands on any global institution working in the most difficult environments. No wonder the Commission’s Report shows the relevant Board Committee struggling with massive agendas.


Do not judge a charity or its leaders overall by looking at one dimension of its practice in isolation


  1. Oxfam have not used the facts about their international transformation as an excuse for shameful behaviour by its representatives in Haiti in 2011 in contravention of their own Code of Conduct, or for subsequent misjudgements, inadequate disclosures, or for insufficient attention to specific safeguarding allegations and to safeguarding as an issue. Nor do I. My argument is that such failings in 2012 onwards do not stem from being unethical, or from a “failure of moral leadership” (thank you, Penny Mordaunt), or from being merely “well intentioned” (in Baroness Stowell’s condescending phrase). The Trustees were identifying and struggling with risk assessment and management in multiple dimensions – and I believe that anybody close to them will tell you that they did so, in general, with a high degree of conscientiousness and capability, on many occasions putting sustained pressure on staff and insisting on more attention to risks they felt might be being neglected.
  2. Let us remember that they had to attend to risks of aid diversion, eg to terrorists, on which the former Chair of the Charity Commission made a number of dramatic statements to the media. They had to attend to fraud and other forms of corruption. They had to attend to auditing complex, and changing, financial flows. They had to attend to the security of Oxfam’s staff, partners and representatives working in war zones. They had to attend to the fundraising scandal and effect permanent improvements in the management of outsourced marketing. They had to attend to data protection. They had to attend to obtaining proper value for money from Oxfam’s programmes and to adherence to Oxfam’s operating manuals. They had to attend to assessing the impact of many different programmes round the globe. The Commission’s report considers safeguarding in isolation, but Oxfam’s Trustees and senior staff could not.
  3. Against this background, Oxfam was one of the first INGOs to set up a separate safeguarding unit. As is acknowledged in the Report, it was regarded as an example of best practice in some respects by its peers and an independent academic review. Yes, it was under-resourced, but I dare say every single unit in Oxfam GB and Oxfam International felt, and in many cases were, under-resourced. Safeguarding had to make its pitch against the claims of all the other aspects of ethical risk management and organisational hygiene mentioned above, and all the other claims on Oxfam GB’s unrestricted funds. If the Charity Commission Chief Executive concludes that “Oxfam’s culture tolerated poor behaviour” it must also be said in fairness that “Oxfam’s culture” in other dimensions tightened the screw on poor behaviour and risks and managed a massive additional layer of risk involved in the creation of Oxfam International. Note that Oxfam GB won the Charities Against Fraud Award in 2018 – the judges’ comments suggest that “Oxfam’s culture” has had its successes as well as failures.


  1. The reported inadequacies of safeguarding resourcing and management should not be minimised, but understood in this wider context. Beware of sweeping generalised conclusions about Oxfam as a whole operation or its Trustees and other leaders, or even its “culture”, as if it were a monolith.
  2. Looking at the whole picture, as Oxfam’s leadership must do, would it have obviously been a good ethical move to withdraw some of the funding from the fledgling Oxfam International, weakening and delaying its proper fruition, in order to swell the funding on safeguarding more quickly? Would it have been obviously a good ethical move if the funding and staffing behind the award-winning anti-fraud operation had been diverted to safeguarding instead?  Would it have been obviously more ethical to withdraw funding from Oxfam’s ground breaking research and awareness-raising work on worsening global inequality or the agony of the Yemen? With hindsight, Mark Goldring has acknowledged that more priority should have been given to safeguarding sooner, but if you make a choice that you regret afterwards it is not because you are selfish, ethically defective or inattentive to being good, it is because you are having to make tricky judgement calls among competing priorities, all of which are morally compelling.


Confront the necessity for spending on staff and administration, which may not be what “the public” , or many donors, want


  1. I feel sure there was unease in Oxfam, as in many other charities, about the rising tide of resources required to satisfy rising regulatory standards and strengthen the organisation and its administration, as opposed to direct spending on charitable activities. This unease was greatly increased in Oxfam’s case at that time because of the volume of money going into the creation of Oxfam International.
  2. The Charity Commission Report is admirably robust that adequate investment in safeguarding must not be regarded as a desirable add on but as a fundamental requirement of being a good charity. But the Charity Commission is not always so robust or explicit. For it is a pervasive public myth that big charities like Oxfam have excessive overheads and spend lots of unnecessary money on administration (and of course staff salaries) instead of getting it through to people in need on the front line. These myths appear clearly in the Commission’s own research. Yet the Commission’s Chair says that it is not the Commission’s job to try to influence the “so-called myths” of the public, but rather to tell charities what the public expects. Can this still be a tenable position?


Is it about being more charitable and “good”, or more feminist?


  1. A major component of the cultural change that is required in charities and other sectors is to do with patriarchy. The incoming Secretary General of Oxfam GB, Danny Sriskandaraja, has rightly said that “we need to make a concerted explicit effort to deconstruct the power inequities that are all too easily built into and perpetuated by, institutions like ours”. All across society we have become much more aware of what happens when unequal power situations are linked to sexual appetite or cruelty. This is particularly true of the power many men still exercise over women and the sense of entitlement and objectification that derives from patriarchy. We now have to act on that awareness effectively. This is not about being more selfless, but more feminist. That is one of the reasons why ActionAid incorporated into its current international strategy an explicit commitment to feminist leadership principles, now being rolled out across the whole Federation. Vague injunctions to behave better and be selfless and charitable, don’t measure up to the challenges of patriarchy and its toxic cultural norms.


Acknowledge the inter-dependence of culture, Codes, policies and processes


  1. There is also a tendency to take the line that “policies and processes are of course important BUT….” And what follows is that it is above all leadership, “culture”, attitudes and behaviour that must change. Yes and no. It’s a false polarity. Leadership is certainly key. But we are not suddenly, or even eventually, going to make the people who involve themselves in charities more moral by telling them to be more moral. We shall all continue to have feet of clay. There will always be difficult competition for attention between compelling moral and ethical demands, of which safeguarding is one. But awareness can change, as it has about safeguarding and about women’s experience of sexual harassment, for instance, and then we need to take this on board not with moral rhetoric but effective action. And we cannot do that without the right processes, codes and policies.
  2. We need processes like AwayDays and Board self-reviews, which create opportunities to revisit our mission and refresh our values, think hard about how we can realise them better, and what kind of leaders we aspire to be. It may also be the deliberate process of creating safe spaces for women that enables them to articulate their perspectives and demands and be part of decision-making. We need regular strategic reviews that map the practical pathways to cultural change along with all other aspects of mission, making sure we are if possible ahead of, rather than behind, changing societal norms. We need Codes and policies, based on inclusive consultation and cold eyed analysis, to tell us what is expected, and outlawed, for every representative of our charity.
  3. After all it is not so simple to define “being good and behaving well”. Does it mean, for instance, we should never have a sexual relationship with any more junior staff member of our charity? What disclosures about our private lives should be made to whom? Does it mean banning sex with prostitutes for all representatives of the charity, in and out of work? How do we know when sexual harassment is different from a sexist compliment or a clumsy sexual advance? We need carefully considered Codes to clarify these and many other issues. We need training and refresher courses to embed these Codes so they are not neglected. We need an HR system that makes clear that recruitment, task setting, performance management, appraisal, promotional prospects, all integrate the requirements of our Code of conduct and values – your advancement will crucially depend on whether you embody and support them.
  4. In bigger charities, we need tough, adequately resourced internal audit and safeguarding functions with robust independence from line management and dotted lines through direct to the Board. In that sense, it is policies, Codes, processes, and formal accountabilities that embed our values, make them real in practice and, over time, change our culture in those areas where it needs to change, and strengthen it in those areas where it is already supporting our mission (because culture in many big organisations is not monolithic, all good or all bad). We need leaders who back these processes and Codes to the hilt, whatever the many other ethical demands on their attention. And it all costs time and money.


Don’t imply it is easy if only you were more ethical


  1. Some of this is really difficult. This is partly because, if safeguarding is the preoccupation today in the wake of particular scandals, tomorrow it can be terrorism again, or fundraising again, or fraud, or corruption, or aid diversion, or poor value for money, or massive data breaches, or poor impact – all important moral concerns. So we have to maintain a balanced overview, trying to ration and regulate our attention so as not to lose sight of any of the many relevant risks to our mission and values. We have to make the best choices we can, knowing that we will sometimes, with hindsight, turn out to be wrong.
  2. It is also difficult because the granular detail of turning high principles into consistent practice is difficult and, sometimes, perceived as bureaucratic and boring. In some popular circles it is decried as “political correctness”. Of course, in all kinds of charities and other organisations passionate, “can-do” people trying to change the world, heal the sick, support a struggling family, win a campaign, are impatient with what they may perceive to be centralised bureaucratic demands such as standardised record-keeping, audit trails or multiple questionnaires and a snowstorm of lengthy policies coming down from the centre. Cultural tensions of this kind will never be eliminated; they have to be worked at perpetually.
  3. So it will never be easy, and reducing the issues to simplistic moral precepts really does not help. Let’s learn the right lessons, as Oxfam surely is now doing and will continue to do.

[1] I am also Vice Chair of ActionAid, have been Chair or Vice Chair of six UK charities, and Chief Executive of others, and remain a Trustee of Directory of Social Change and two other charities. I was a Board Member of the Charity Commission, 2006-2010. I write here in in individual and personal capacity only.

The Civil Society Futures Report – some strengths and weaknesses

The Civil Society Futures initiative, generously funded by a consortium of grant giving charitable trusts and supported by the NCVO, reported its findings in November 2018. It was a very difficult assignment: because civil society is so vast and amorphous, and “the future” so boundless, coherent analysis is really difficult. Now that some of the dust has settled, what are the strengths and weaknesses of what the initiative came up with?

The format of the reporting is quite fragmented, with busy happenings on screen as you try to read the report, and many different stories, blogs and case studies in different parts of the website. A fuddy-duddy like me found this quite challenging, and it is a serious caveat that I may easily have missed elements that might modify my judgements. Along with the vast majority of readers, I don’t pretend to have read everything on the website, but I tried to read the main report fairly.


  1. I am personally sympathetic to the Inquiry’s political position that it is desirable for many people in our society to have a stronger sense of participation, power, agency and control over their own lives, with opportunities to contribute to society underpinning a sense of self worth. Empowerment is one of the key contributions made by some parts of civil society. It is legitimate and inevitable that the Inquiry should be selective, define its own values and take sides, so long as this is transparent and explicit; and empowerment and the four elements in the “PACT” that it recommends – Power, Accountability, Connection and Trust – truly deserve more concerted attention and development by many civil society organisations.
  2. Those elements are certainly relevant to addressing some of the key worrying trends in our society identified by the Inquiry, such as a sense of alienation and powerlessness, inequality and corrosive social divisions.
  3. I also welcome the ambition of the Inquiry for civil society – we are urged to aim high, to have confidence that if we do we can transform society for the better as voluntary organisations have done before. As part of that, the report shows rugged support for the campaigning role of civil society, giving voice to those who would otherwise be voiceless, helping to shape collective decisions. Another accurate emphasis is on bridging divides in society and helping “community” to be a living reality rather than a myth that masks atomisation and fatalism.
  4. Among the relatively sparse recommendations as to who needs to do what to make such desirable outcomes more likely, is the valuable notion of a People Power Grid of social infrastructure, including a proliferation of people and organisations who connect  people and catalyse community development. This will indeed be a positive focus for a range of funders, other civil society organisations and state agencies, although it was not entirely clear to me how this relates to more conventional infrastructure such as Councils for Voluntary Service, Volunteer Bureaux and the like, nor what the Inquiry thinks about them.
  5. There is also strong awareness in the report of existential environmental crises including global warming and diminishing biodiversity – although I found myself unsure how far the recommendations of the report are relevant to tackling these.                                                                                                                                                                  Weaknesses
  6. The Report itself fails to engage with the huge problems of definition of civil society. I may have missed something but I was never sure who the Report is talking about and whether, for example, trade unions were in or out. Nor is the Report explicit about being deliberately selective, addressing certain key issues that apply to some organisations but not others, and not trying to be comprehensive. As a result its sweeping generalisations are inapplicable to large swathes of civil society and this becomes an irritating weakness:
  • “Civil society risks becoming irrelevant if we do not change”. But why should my local cinema club, football club, dance evening, women’s choir, gentlemen’s discussion group, park run, pigeon fanciers’ club become irrelevant?
  • “All of us in civil society” should commit to PACT. Really? All of the above? The Pitcombe cooking club must “revolutionise its approach” to accountability – so that its members are “more accountable to each other and to future generations?”
  • “Bridging frequent social divides in our society “is the heart of civil society’s purpose”. Is it? Or just some kinds of civil society organisations? Many civil society organisations bring like-minded people or those with shared enthusiasms together for purposes of enjoyment and conviviality. Many others are, quite properly, contentious, promoting a cause that will divide opinion sharply. Others may be quite sectarian – think of The Christian Institute, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists and loads of others.
  • There is “an urgent call for us all to behave differently”. All? This is even worse than the Charity Commission Chair’s current rhetoric because it covers the entire civil society, not just 168,000 charities!
  1. For a Report emphasising the need for radical shifts of power, with an experienced advisory group, it is extraordinary that the analysis is ungendered. There is virtually no mention of systematic, patriarchal bias against the rights of women. The voice of women’s struggles is virtually absent, unless someone else has noticed it on other parts of the website. This seems an embarrassing, puzzling omission. “Our society is divided between urban and rural, between north and south, between young and old. It is still deeply divided on racial and class lines.” Anyone spot the missing division? Feminists, eat your hearts out.
  2. In so far as we are talking about measuring up to the massive challenges of inequality, damaged democracy, climate change, alienation etc, there is little recognition of the vast importance of the state and politics. It is not right to load too many expectations onto civil society’s own activities alone. Julia has gone out of her way to tell charities they mustn’t expect the Government to do everything and should pull their own fingers out but this can tip over into vitiating the balance and realism of the Inquiry. Scandinavian countries who do very well on indices of happiness and quality of life have relatively stronger states and less well developed civil societies than we do, but this is not explored. Similarly, the Report’s history is sometimes one-eyed: “When the Industrial Revolution transformed our cities, it was civil society that organised to combat the squalor and chaos” – er, only up to a point. Major transformation had to await the intervention of the state, for example Chadwick’s sewerage and public health systems, at last putting an end to grotesque epidemics caused by foul water, just as later it was the state that transformed education, health, working conditions in mines and factories and many other facets of life.
  3. The Report places inordinate weight on existing civil society organisations transforming themselves. “Civil society will not be able to do this (put itself at the heart of tackling massive social and political challenges) without changing itself.” This analysis  involves three problems:
  • An untenable level of generalisation
  • Portrayal of current civil society, overall, as predominantly jaded, in need of massive injection of energy, rebirth; not fit for purpose, lacking confidence, skills and credibility…. I think this is too negative. It is a very mixed picture, of course, but there is plenty of surging life, energy and innovation in many civil society organisations. Good organisations regularly review their strategy and external environment and seek to renew themselves in their regular cycles of strategic review. Many people in our sector have been worrying away about how to be more responsive to users and about issues of power, accountability and community development for many decades. Different solutions come and go in waves over the years.
  • Vagueness as to why many civil society organisations, eg big specialist charities, should want to transform themselves when they may be achieving their charitable objectives well already. Their objectives may not include empowering local communities. If RSPB were to make adjustments to how it listens to its members (how?) why would it make more than a very marginal or zero difference to the challenges enumerated in the Report? Ditto CRUK and many others?
  1. Implicit vague smearing of big charities. At the centre of alleged jadedness and wasted opportunities in the Report are, by implication, anonymised big charities. We are told they need to change the fastest as part of the necessary revolution. But we don’t know who they are. The only ones mentioned explicitly by Julia Unwin in a previous article are Barnardos, RSPB, Red Cross and Cancer Research UK. I have already challenged Julia to explain exactly what kind of transformation of these organisations can properly be expected that would advance their charitable objectives:


she did kindly respond with a blog, but in my view left some points unanswered. Who are the others that need to change fast? Why should Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth change, if global warming is to be combatted? Why should the Ramblers be transformed – what exactly do we want that very democratic organisation to do differently? The Church of England, with all its community building activities? What is the nature of the recommended revolution in such charities and why is it likely to be key to the big challenges of society?  Is the challenge the same for big charities comprised of local branches as for centralised ones? Local activists may feel CRUK and Barnardos and the rest do little for them. Maybe that’s because it isn’t their job? If we are going to assign pride of place in the revolution to big charities transforming themselves, we need more careful distinctions between charities of different structures, governance, and purposes; and much greater clarity on what the nature of the challenge to them is.

  1. Vagueness on building trust. Trust is “our core currency and foundation”, says the report. (Many professions and other occupations would say the same.) We are supposed to devote time and resources to building trust (exactly whose trust?) and “earning trust by staying true to our values, standing up for them, and trusting others with vital decisions that affect them”. One can only agree, but who is NOT staying true to their values – is this supposed to be a general problem throughout the vastness of civil society, or is it all those big charities or just a few of them who have allegedly lost their vision? What really are we talking about?
  2. All in all, there are really admirable elements. But there are also too many of these problems and weaknesses. One might see it as a polemic – passionate, interesting, but flawed. As a result,  the “urgent call for us all to behave differently” doesn’t seem likely to cut through.

Salute to Sir Stuart Etherington

We have been served notice that a very large, distinctive tree in the civil society forest will fall later this year. Sir Stuart Etherington is to step down from his post as Chief Executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) for the last 25 years.

Under Stuart, the independence of the NCVO has been greatly strengthened. It is no longer dependent on Government grants, and a much larger proportion of its income and legitimacy depends on its massively expanded membership. It is financially relatively stable. It is well organised, with a talented staff. You will not always agree with what Stuart or the NCVO say, but you will always treat them with respect, because it is always thought through carefully (possibly unless the Chair occasionally breaks loose, enhancing the gaiety of the nation). In a fractious sector, NCVO’s status and importance is very widely recognised: quite an achievement.

Stuart is a very shrewd analyst, an exceptional mind, enriched by so much experience of the sector in interaction with other key institutions and wider social trends. I have always been impressed by that analytical, independent-minded thoughtfulness, ever since I first came across him as Chief Executive of RNIB. He also has a good political nose and a rugged sense of what is deliverable. He will pounce on opportunities for a strategic re-think that is calculated to strengthen the sector – think of the Nicholas Deakin report, for example, or the seminal working group under Winifred Tumim that put public benefit on the map as the key to understanding the obligations of charities, the review of charity fundraising when it was in a mess, and more recently the review of charity taxation and charity ethics.

He is good at relationships with successive Ministers for Civil Society, and on the whole with the Charity Commission even when they and NCVO disagree, which they ought to from time to time. Sir Stuart is a powerful character with strong views, and like a gigantic mongoose will rush to defend his pups in the shape of the interests and key positions of his organisation, or the wider sector, against threats. That means there are always those who may be smarting from a forceful put-down.  Sometimes, the sector needs, and has, leaders of both sexes who can be bruisers at times: Stuart is one. But in his case it is all done with the best interests of the sector at heart.

Like all of us, he has faults, but I think he knows better than anyone else what they are. It is impossible to run the NCVO, with all the complex  pressures on it, without upsetting some of us occasionally and without sometimes making a judgement call that doesn’t work out. Again, he knows what they are.

But the crucial point about Stuart, even more than his brilliant abilities, is this: beneath his formidable, occasionally pompous image beats a big heart imbued with the love of the voluntary sector.

Every great tree has its time. But it will nevertheless be sad to see this one go.

An “inconvenient truth” for Charity Commission: the public do not know what charities are.

Baroness Stowell, Chair of the Charity Commission has said it repeatedly. It is not the Commission’s job to educate the public about charities. Its job is to tell charities what the public expects and wants from them. That’s the core of its new Statement of Strategic Intent.

Therein lies a paradox. For the Commission’s own research reveals that the public in general don’t know what charities are.

Let us recall the Charity Commission’s publication of research by Populus in July 2018. A sample of over 2000 members of the public were asked what the word “charities” brought to mind. The result was a grand total of about 9 named charities, all big national names, obviously led by Oxfam, in the wake of the scandal. The sample mentioned only limited categories of charities: mainly medical/cancer, children and animals. Populus commented: “Very few respondents immediately thought of local charities [ie the overwhelming majority of all charities in real life], educational organisations or cultural institutions.” They might have added, nor did respondents  think of  religious charities (one in six or so of all charities), environmental, community development or human rights charities either. Populus add: “This context must be borne in mind when interpreting public trust in charities”.

Subsequent Populus focus group research for the Commission found exactly the same: “It was large, household names which they first thought of when appraising the sector”, Populus report. No surprise there, so that might leave about 167,990 others.  There is also evidence of what the Chair has described as “so-called myths”: “at best, they (the focus groups) thought that large charities wasted vast amounts on unnecessary bureaucracy, and at worst, they felt that many were mechanisms for enriching senior charity workers that went against the spirit of charity”. And as one group member put it, “What can be quite disconcerting is when 80 per cent of the donations are going to administration, so less than 20 per cent of the pound is going to the cause on the ground”.

Perhaps the biggest problem in basing your Strategic Intent too heavily on public attitudes towards charities, as explored in such research, is that very many of our fellow citizens don’t know that churches and other faith institutions are charities. They don’t know that universities and lots of schools are charities. They don’t know that theatres, operas, great concert halls are charities; nor many think tanks, professional associations, hospitals, gyms, many sorts of sports organisations and fitness centres. They don’t know much about the far greater multitudes of small local charities. When the researchers for the Charity Commission ask people how many times they have received a service from a charity in the recent past, they give a quite low figure, but when a list of actual charities is put before them, that figure leaps to a far higher one. That is just one indicator of the knowledge gap, which is freely admitted by the Commission’s researchers, but which the Commission’s leadership seems reluctant to acknowledge publicly.

They have been making too many generalisations about what “the public” expect of “charities” in general, without the necessary caveats and qualifications. According to the Chair it isn’t the job of the Commission – even, apparently, if it would help public trust and confidence in charities – to dispel public misconceptions or myths as to what “charities” are and what they are like. Indeed, the Chair has at times appeared to deny that such myths and misconceptions exist – notwithstanding the Commission’s own research. In her world, every criticism by a sample of the public of the tiny, distorted sample of charities known to most of them, represents a direct and compelling challenge to charities in general to change their behaviour. Even charities themselves should, she implies, stop trying to explain the realities of their lives better and change their ethos and behaviour instead.  If such statements are supposed to be shaped by the Commission’s research into public opinion,  it is in my view a one-eyed reading of the research, ignoring its inherent limitations and  loading onto it oversimplified generalisations about our vast sector that the research will not properly bear. The same is true of the over-heated suggestion that “the writing is on the wall” for registered charities (in general, apparently) unless they change their ethos and behaviour.

When such objectionss are made, it is facile to accuse charity insiders of evading inconvenient truths, as the Chief Executive has done. Stubborn evidence of the limited knowledge and misconceptions of many of the public is indeed an inconvenient truth for the Commission’s leadership on its current rhetorical trajectory.

I am not one of those who deny any useful role for research into public attitudes, especially for a body whose duties include promoting public confidence and trust in charities. There are insights from the Populus research which, carefully handled and merged with the Commission’s wide experience and knowledge, with data on giving and volunteering, with common sense and, crucially, the requirements of charity law and public benefit, can reinforce a strategy to enhance long term public trust and confidence in charities.

I have no significant criticism of most of the research itself, but its limitations need to be scrupulously acknowledged. Otherwise, a rickety rhetorical superstructure can distract from the sound elements of the base, and, more importantly, from the vitally important work that the Commission actually accomplishes for the public good day in, day out.


If you want to make statements about “charities” stick to what they have in common

The Charity Commission claims that its recent Statement of Strategic Intent represents the very first time the Commission has acknowledged that regulation is not an end in itself. 

I do not, however, recall any previous Board saying or implying: “We must pursue regulation for regulation’s sake!” On the contrary, the strategic aim has long been to promote public trust and confidence in charities because Parliament has decided that specified causes are charitable and for the public benefit. That is not regulation for regulation’s sake, but for the sake of benefitting the public.

For example, after 2006 the Charity Commission spent a lot of time and effort trying to “help maximise the benefit that charity [I think she means charities] provide[s] in our society”, as the current Chief Executive puts it, by providing, as instructed by Parliament, comprehensive guidance on how charities can and must benefit the public, what that really means, and how they should define, assess and report on the benefits they offer in a manner consistent with charity case law. The overall guidance has the merit of being common to all charities, in all their diversity, and it was supplemented by more detailed guidance for key sectors including education and religion. I can assure the current Commission that we were doing this, not as regulation as an end in itself, but for the public benefit – and for the sake of strengthening the long term bargain between charities and the rest of society.

By contrast, the Charity Commission’s new Statement of Strategic Intent, and surrounding speeches and articles by its Chair and Chief Executive, give central place not to public benefit or charity law, but to the need for charities (in general, apparently) to change their culture and behaviour in order to exhibit charitable ethos and attitudes such as “the public” expect. I argued in a recent blog that this prospectus is marred by vagueness:

Let us now look at what actual examples of “charitable attitudes and ethos” the Chair or Chief Executive have given: their best efforts to explain what they actually mean. They are finding it difficult to generalise.

They correctly say that important lessons must be learned from the minority of charities responsible for bad fundraising practices and from inadequate approaches to safeguarding. That does indeed require culture change (among other things), with more consistent respect for donors as human beings, and better safeguarding policies and Codes of Conduct that are taken seriously at every level, now that the consequences of unequal power relationships and patriarchy are understood better within and beyond the workplace. I gladly pay tribute to the part played by the Fundraising Regulator and Charity Commission respectively in assisting such changes. OK, but what else?

After that, the examples offered by the Chair have run into heavy flak. Charities, we are told, should not prioritise their own organisational growth above the long term interests of their beneficiaries. Agreed, they should not prioritise anything at all above those interests, but it is far from simple to judge in any particular case whether the beneficiaries gain more from the growth of a good charity than they would if that charity chose not to grow. The Charity Commission is not the right body to make that judgement.  The Chair cites one charity that decided not to tender for a commissioning contract because other charities might be damaged and beneficiaries might suffer in the long run. Great – but that might be the right decision for beneficiaries  in one case, the wrong one in another. It is not a general example of the behaviour that people expect from charities.  Indeed, giving smaller charities a better chance in commissioning processes is mainly about changing the processes, not charitable ethos. Perhaps charities should also be less like businesses, she suggests, but this is another vague generalisation when charities are so diverse and some of them definitely need to be more business-like, learning from the commercial world and applying relevant insights to their own distinctive purposes. (Thanks to sundry Twitterati who have made these points).

In short, when it comes to explaining what they mean by their strong emphasis on changing culture and behaviour in favour of charitable attitudes, charitable ethos and charitable behaviour,  the cupboard is so far strikingly bare. In a future blog I shall suggest that the Commission’s focus group research does little to help stock the cupboard.

The Commission’s key problem here is that it is genuinely difficult to generalise accurately about 168,000 totally diverse charities. That enormous sector might say with Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes”. The Charity Commission knows more about that diversity than any other body.

It is nevertheless possible to make generalisations about them if they are based on charity law and public benefit, because charitable status and charity law is common to them all, and them alone. It is possible to make generalisations about their independence, because by definition they must all be independent, and about the salience of volunteer effort (including volunteer Trustees) and money freely given by donors, since those are distinctive characteristics of the vast majority of charities even if shared with other voluntary organisations, too. Those things are common to the entire diverse crowd.  It is, however, perilously difficult, if not impossible, to make useful generalisations about their behaviour, attitudes and ethos because you are comparing most charities that have no staff with the minority that do, a football club with the Royal Albert Hall, local mosques with The British Council, a posh fee-paying school with a self help group for Somali immigrants, the Wellcome Trust with a hedgehog preservation society. Trying to find ethical principles to suit all that lot leads to a very high level of “apple pie” generality with limited purchase on real decisions in real life. This is why the NCVO has experienced major difficulties trying to come up  with a Code or Statement of Ethics for Charities (see my blog Doubts About the NCVO’s draft Code of Ethics) : the Charity Commission is not alone in its struggles.

The vagueness of the Commission’s Statement of Strategic Intent and accompanying communications seems to be the result of, apparently, sailing away from a primary emphasis on the things that define all charities, and therefore from the Commission’s heartland of authority and expertise. As they head into the mists of “charity” (instead of “charities”), ethics, attitudes, culture, and behaviour, the clarity of the Regulator’s messaging tends to dissolve as the visibility deteriorates.