Lessons from the Oxfam Scandal

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Peter Spencer of Wellers Law Group reflects on the lessons which can be learnt from the Oxfam crisis and how the Charity Commission’s Report can help charities review their governance procedures.

“If we want charities to be transparent – and we do – we are unfortunately going to hear more about things going wrong. Harassment and abuse clearly exist across all sectors and countries, and no-one can be complacent.”

In her tweet, Vicky Browning, CEO of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO), summarised the huge problem facing charities as they attempt to put themselves in order after public scandals at the likes of Kids Company, the Presidents Club and – most recently – Oxfam.

On 11 June 2019, the Charity Commission published the findings of its 18-month investigation into Oxfam’s handling of allegations of sexual exploitation and bullying by senior Oxfam staff working in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The report runs to 143 pages and takes into account over 7,000 items of evidence.

The Commission, in their press release introducing the report, summarised that the charity failed to heed warnings (including from its own staff) that its culture and response around keeping people safe was inadequate and made commitments to safeguarding that were not matched by its actions.

Specifically, the inquiry found that the charity:

  • did not adequately follow up whether victims of sexual misconduct in Haiti were minors;
  • did not report allegations of child abuse by Oxfam staff in Haiti, failing to take the risks to alleged victims seriously enough;
  • dealt with staff members implicated in sexual misconduct in Haiti inconsistently, notably by appearing to treat senior staff more leniently than junior staff;
  • did not match its resources and capability around safeguarding to the risks associated with the charity’s global reach and the nature of its work;
  • had an approach to safeguarding case work which was at times unstructured and lacked adequate assurance and oversight mechanisms. Trustees were unable to identify serious failures in case handling, including poor record keeping, failings of which the inquiry was “extremely critical”.

The report was not only focused on Oxfam but reflected on the obligations of the sector as a whole. The Charity Commission’s Chair, Baroness Stowell, notes in the foreword to the report, that:

‘No charity is so large, nor is its mission so important that it can afford to put its own reputation ahead of the dignity and wellbeing of those it exists to protect. But the implications of this inquiry are not confined to the failings of a single, big charity, because no charity is too small to bear its own share of responsibility for upholding the wider good name of charity.’

The report shows that the regulatory burden on charities is ever-increasing and that all organisations should review the level of risk they take on and identify areas of concern.

Following this exercise, safeguarding practices and procedures should be updated bearing in mind the specific lessons which we can take from the Commission’s report on Oxfam. Namely that:-

  • Trustees are ultimately responsible for a charity’s actions and need to have procedures in place to ensure that they have effective oversight of the executive’s actions;
  • There should be proper processes to allow whistle-blowers to come forward – both to raise concerns and keep whistle-blowers informed of the consequences of the organisation’s report where possible;
  • Transparency and reporting incidents to appropriate statutory authorities should be paramount. This includes reporting to the Commission, in line with their guidance on reporting serious incidents.

The report disclosed that the charity “failed to make sufficiently full and frank disclosures about the incidents in Haiti” and that that decision was “influenced by a desire to protect Oxfam GB’s reputation” and concern about “not triggering a lack of donor confidence and/or funding withdrawal”.

Whilst the Commission often emphasises the importance of charities protecting their reputation, seeking to avoid negative press at the expense of complying with a charity’s reporting requirements is likely to have the opposite effect in the long term.

  • In dealing with an incident, protecting beneficiaries should be at the heart of the organisation’s decision-making.

The report stated that “the focus of the Oxfam investigation at the time became getting enough evidence to ensure the individuals of concern were removed from Haiti and Oxfam. The risk to and impact on the victims appeared to take second place and was not taken seriously enough.”

It is important that, where a serious incident occurs, the organisation focuses not just on resolving the incident at hand but also future risks to beneficiaries.

  • The good work which your charity does and the extraordinarily difficult circumstances in which international aid charities operate, does not excuse charities from complying with regulations.

In an interview with The Guardian, Browning noted that after the death of Olive Cooke in 2015 – whose suicide was linked to massive numbers of charity donation requests – charities were inclined to reject criticism due to a belief in the importance of their work.

Browning added in the week after the Oxfam scandal broke that the ‘sense that we are slightly untouchable because of the nature of our work has gone’. The ramifications of the charity’s decision to deal with the problem internally shows how this expectation of transparency increases the reputational risks of fixing problems behind the scenes and the damage to public perception that this can bring.

  • Have appropriate procedures in place and keep records. As stated above, the inquiry was “extremely critical” of Oxfam’s case handling and in particular its record-keeping.

What now?

The result of this Report may appear disheartening to the sector and make individual charities ask “if Oxfam can’t get it right, how can we?”. However I would argue that much of the Commission’s criticism of Oxfam relates to issues which are historic in nature (particularly in relation to culture and record-keeping) and should be seen as an opportunity for charities to improve their own internal governance and regulatory compliance.

In my talk in London on 18th September and Reading on 8th October 2019 I will explore in greater detail the lessons which charity trustees can learn from the Oxfam Report to improve their own governance procedures.

The views on this page are those of Wellers.

Wellers Law is an event partner of Charity Bank’s Road to Growth events, a series of free regional events exclusively for leaders of charities and social enterprises as part of our commitment to support the social sector.

The half-day sessions this September and October will provide insight on the state of the social sector at a time of change. Panelists will share research and insights on the challenges and opportunities that exist and give examples of how charities and social enterprises are responding.

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