The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) is consulting on a draft Code of Ethics for the whole charity sector. There are a number of questions worth pondering carefully about this venture.
- It is excellent that there is generous time for consultation. Depending on the response, there would be absolutely no dishonour to anybody if it ends up taking a somewhat different form or with substantially amended content.
Inherent Difficulties of Concept
- Charities are so utterly diverse that to identify principles apposite to all is bound to lead to a very high level of generality. The danger is that such a collection of high level generalisations does not add value, even as a checklist, because they can seem abstract: connections with the real life processes and decisions that can turn the principles into reality, and resolve tensions or contradictions between them, are unclear. The Charity Governance Code, which is said to be “complementary” to the draft Code of Ethics, was much more successful in making the links between desirable principles and how to set about enshrining them in the organisation. For instance, it already has in my opinion much more useful material on the subject of diversity and inclusion than the draft Code of Ethics.
- The draft Code of Ethics does not even say that every charity should have an explicit description of its values and should review regularly whether they are being fully embodied in the work of the charity: that kind of suggestion, which might be more likely to change actual behaviour, belongs better to the nature of the Charity Governance Code.
- Indeed, there are disadvantages of having a separate Code of Ethics. It might encourage the dubious idea that it is a subject in its own right, separate from and complementary to good Governance. Since it is essential, however, that the values and ethos of a charity are the ultimate responsibility of the Trustees, and a completely integral part of good governance, is there not a strong case for integrating the draft Code of Ethics into the next iteration of the Charity Governance Code? That stands a better chance of making crucial connections between the core principles of ethical governance (already there in the Charity Governance Code, but capable of elaboration where necessary) and the ethical practice principles, processes and disciplines that can help achieve them.
- Moreover, from a Trustee perspective, I can assure you, the fewer Codes, the better: it is more important to get wider digestion and usage of The Essential Trustee and the Charity Governance Code, which are hard enough to get many Trustees to read anyway, than to add to their reading list. And the Charity Governance Code has the advantage of collaborative official auspices that include a number of different umbrella bodies, including but not limited to the NCVO.
- So are we sure there is a robust consensus for creating an additional Code of Ethics at all?
- The overall aim of the draft Code is to be a framework within which charities can review their own codes of conduct if they have them, and their processes and policies, taking into account the values shared across the charity sector. A narrower stated aim is to “enable all charities, not matter their size of type of activity, to be a safe place for anyone who comes into contact with them”, reflecting the current anxiety about safeguarding in particular. Perhaps another is to respond to valid criticisms of the sector’s lack of diversity and inclusion. The current draft does not succeed fully in moulding these purposes coherently together.
- For example, the importance of inclusion and diversity features strongly in the introductory part of the Code but they do not feature in their own right among the principles later enumerated. Instead, they are treated as scattered subsets of Beneficiaries First, Integrity, Openness and the Right to be Safe. It is unclear how the principle of respecting every individual’s privacy and appropriate confidentiality sits alongside the separate principle of transparency and openness being the default option. It doesn’t seem entirely satisfactory to shoehorn environmental responsibility in under “Integrity”.
- The Right to be Safe receives a strong share of attention because of current concerns but the attempt to flesh out the principles in this section still falls short. There is nothing about taking particular care where there are unequal power relationships, about recognising and countering the systematic biases relating to gender (central to a majority of safeguarding cases) and race, about the principle of enabling safe, confidential whistleblowing or involving an independent element in considering safeguarding allegations against senior staff or Trustees. All in all, the draft Code struggles to find a consistent pitch and coherence, though we must remember that it remains work in progress.
Omissions from the draft Code of Ethics
- It is striking that there is no mention of the systematic bias that women and ethnic minorities commonly face in our society, including the charity sector. Would it not be more likely to have an impact if this were made explicit?
- The draft Code says charities should reflect their charitable ethos in every activity they undertake, but this is of limited help since there is no overall definition of what a charitable ethos is. One aspect is rightly emphasised under the heading Beneficiaries First: keeping the charitable objects and the interests of the beneficiaries front and central is absolutely part of a charitable ethos, but only part. What about public benefit – understanding what it means, what it precludes, being accountable for it, living it – which is one core ethical as well as legal imperative that all charities by definition have in common? No mention. What about the core value of independence? No mention. For the vast majority of charities, what about cherishing the salience of volunteer effort (including volunteer Trustees) and money freely given by donors, as another core element of charitable ethos? As part of that, what about avoiding a purely instrumental or manipulative view of donors? Thin pickings on all this in the draft Code so far.
- To be fair, no manageable Code can cover every ethical issue, and this is a difficult job, but there are other omissions I found disappointing. There is no principle of Civility, which I particularly associate with NCVO: abjuring the coarsening of public discourse with its careless slogans and mutually uncomprehending echo chambers, in favour of respectful listening, patient explanation and engagement with those with whom we disagree, within and beyond the sector. For it is certainly not charitable causes that will come out on top if we collude with polarised shouting. Should this not be addressed better in the draft Code?
- Some charities carry on the way they always have without any process of critical self-review or consideration of alternatives: is this not a key ethical issue? Is it ethical for a charity to continue its work without attempting to assess the effectiveness and impact of what it is doing? Is it ethical to continue as a separate charity without considering the possibility of a merger, a de-merger, closer collaboration, or termination of the charity? Why is there no mention of these?
- The current draft has plenty of helpful elements but it does not at present do the job. The inherent problems of having a separate Code of Ethics for the whole charity sector under NCVO auspices are formidable. A more fruitful alternative may be to integrate the best of the draft Code of Ethics into the Charity Governance Code (in so far as they are not already integrated), which is already establishing itself, and has a much better chance of connecting broad principles to the processes, policies and choices that have to be made in practice if they are to become a living reality. It also has an encouragingly broad auspices, including but not limited to NCVO.
- Whether or not this course is chosen, the most significant omissions in the current draft of the Code should be rectified. If it is to exist separately at all, it must carry a high level of authority.
 This is not specifically my idea; it has come up in conversation with other charity Chairs.