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 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


2 thoughts on “Oxfam GB’s Culture and the Charity Commission

  1. Thanks for this Andrew! A very valuable reflection. Endeavours like the “compliance alliance” are unglamourous and never-ending; there is always more to do. I’ve been on the sharp end of other staff who regard that type of work as “tedious box-ticking”, so I value and sympathize with those who try to carry it forward, and wish they would be given the benefit of the doubt more often. Thank you for speaking up for all those who tried to make Oxfam a better place; I hope their efforts will not be buried beneath people’s love of scandal and schadenfreude.


  2. Pingback: Rough Justice: the Charity Commission and Oxfam GB (Summary Version) | andrewpurkis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s