Thinking about Oxfam: lessons for us all?

The news has been dominated by coverage of the Oxfam issues, some of it measured, some not. Oxfam clearly made serious mistakes, but it also did some things right.  We won’t attempt to summarise all the actions, reactions, initiatives and comment, not least as new facts keep emerging. The key thing is that we all learn from this, and keep learning.  We intend to hold an event to do just that. In the meantime we offer two lessons for all of us:

Every board needs to be very clearly focused on the major risks facing the charity and be sure that procedures it has in place are working.  Reputation risk is a huge issue for all charities as we rely so much on trust, and concerns about one charity can quickly spread. For many charities safeguarding is a key risk. It’s more than policies, procedures or even safeguarding units – you need assurance that they are working. That includes encouraging and listening to whistle-blowers.

Be prepared for bad news. In a major incident, you need to engage fully with the Charity Commission; respond quickly and decisively to media enquiries; and give timely briefings to your staff and volunteers, and relevant stakeholders, eg funders.  And take account of the wider impact on the reputation of the sector and the implications of not sharing lessons.

Supporting this, we offer a measured piece from senior communications consultant Peter Gilheany, writing in Third Sector, advising charities never to attempt to “bury bad news”; and a link to a very honest assessment of the lessons by Vicky Browning, CEO of Acevo, in an interview in the Guardian.

The Charity Commission has responded with a range of initiatives including a summit on safeguarding for charities working in the UK, and has also reminded us of their recent advice on reporting safeguarding incidents (including previously unreported ones) and its updated safeguarding strategy, which reminded trustees that they should proactively safeguard and promote the welfare of their charity’s beneficiaries, their staff and others who come into contact with them.