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.



Leave a Reply

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

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s