Whistleblowing in charities: why it is so important – right now
by Shoosmiths LLP
Blowing a whistle remains the most effective means of being heard above the crowd and drawing attention to an issue. Speaking up can help charities to do their work even better.
The relevance of whistleblowing to charities
A private member’s bill is wending its way through Parliament at the moment, looking to establish an Office of the Whistleblower. Separately, Protect - the whistleblowing charity - has drafted a bill to amend the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 which via the Employment Rights Act 1996 provides protection to workers who suffer detriment as a result of making protected disclosures. Protect wants to extend legal protection to more people, including to trustees, trainees and volunteers.
Why should this be of relevance to the vast majority of charities, doing their best to maintain their services during a cost-of-living crisis, when their resources are being squeezed and demand for those services has rocketed?
The answer is because charities are special; that’s why they enjoy significant tax breaks, are held in high esteem by many, and why they are able to secure grant funding and hard-earned donations from the general public.
But while charities do good, many could do even better. ‘ESG’ – a focus on Environment, Social and Governance - is a term that is becoming increasingly adopted in the corporate world, a call to action for responsible and sustainable business, but the charity sector cannot afford to be complacent: it’s not just what you do, but also the way in which you do it. RSM’s survey last year highlighted the relevance of ESG to charities, which include the benefits of demonstrating value to funders and other stakeholders, helping to attract and retain the best talent, and driving improvements in operational efficiencies.
‘Unleashing the power of civil society’, the long-awaited report recently published by the Law Family Commission on Civil Society, addresses the imperative of businesses working with and learning from the social sector, but it is equally important for charities to continue to focus on the ‘G’ – as well as the ‘E’ and the ‘S’.
Take by way of example one of the most trusted and well-known charities of all – Oxfam GB, which in early 2018 was rocked by an investigation by The Times into Oxfam workers in Haiti procuring sex in return for aid, following the devastating earthquake in that country in 2010.
The charity’s deputy chief executive quit soon after the scandal broke, followed several months later by the chief executive’s announcement of his planned departure. Oxfam GB voluntarily agreed to withdraw from bidding for government funding. A Charity Commission inquiry followed a government investigation and in 2019 the regulator concluded that there was a culture of tolerating poor behaviour and mismanagement within Oxfam and it presented a 100-point action plan for the charity to address.
A Charity Commission follow-up three years later concluded that Oxfam GB had satisfactorily attained the overwhelming majority of the 100 recommendations and commitments in the Review and Action Plan. The commission commended the enormous collective efforts that had resulted in substantial changes to the way Oxfam GB approached safeguarding. The charity had made many significant strides in its safeguarding journey, over this relatively short period.
Oxfam has tripled its investment in safeguarding, created a new Director of Safeguarding position and introduced mandatory training for 10,000 Oxfam employees worldwide. It now has safeguarding ‘focal points’ in every country where Oxfam is present, to work with communities and its staff. It seeks to change the culture in which it works, to help prevent abuses of power and to support those who speak out.
In its latest published Trustees’ Annual report, Oxfam GB confirmed it had concluded 38 safeguarding investigations in 2021/22 and had upheld or partially upheld complaints in 24 of those cases. It had dismissed 10 people over safeguarding concerns over the 12-month reporting period, and stated it was determined to continue to improve its safeguarding so that its work takes place in as safe an environment as possible.
By any measure this is progress - but at what cost?
The cost of having to blow the whistle
Back in 2014 Oxfam’s Head of Global Safeguarding, Helen Evans, was preparing to attend a high-level internal meeting at Oxfam to share the troubling findings of her confidential staff surveys which included allegations of sexual exploitation or abuse perpetrated by Oxfam staff overseas, as well as allegations of shortcomings in UK shops, which included some shop managers not being DBS-checked. Shortly before the planned meeting Ms Evans was told she wasn’t required to join it and that while the leadership team recognised a problem, it didn’t feel there was anything she could add by her presence.
Ms Evans considered she wasn’t being listened to and that the safeguarding function within Oxfam wasn’t being afforded the resource it needed. Eventually she left Oxfam and the job she loved and her home in Oxford. Later, her marriage broke down. She has paid a very high personal price for raising her concerns.
In November 2022 the government lifted its ban on Oxfam GB bidding for public contracts, which had been introduced in April 2021 after bullying and sexual abuse allegations were made against its staff in the Democratic Republic of Congo (and which ban had followed Oxfam’s voluntary withdrawal from bidding for public funding back in 2018, following Haiti).
With the benefit of hindsight, wouldn’t it have been so much better for Oxfam GB as well as for Helen Evans if her uncomfortable truths had been properly listened to, and her concerns acted upon, back in 2014?
In its latest report on whistleblowing disclosures made to it in 2021-2022 the Charity Commission reported that 281 whistleblowing incidents had been disclosed to it over that period, a decrease of 150 compared to the previous year. There are over 169,000 charities currently registered with the Charity Commission so an immediate response to those figures might be that they are an encouraging sign and that the operation of charities rarely gives cause for concern to those working within them. But is that really the case?
Rather, isn’t the reality that at least some charity workers, volunteers and even trustees around the country in charities of all sizes continue to suffer in silence, turning a Nelsonian eye and walk on by - or just leave their position - because they consider, rightly or wrongly, that their charity wouldn’t change, or that if they did speak up then this would lead to unacceptably adverse personal consequences for them?
Prevention rather than cure: encouraging a speak-up culture within charities
Shouldn’t everyone involved with charities feel able to speak up, in good faith, to stop or even better to prevent, harm from arising? And shouldn’t all charities welcome feedback and the opportunity to do better and to burnish their credentials for the way they go about their business and how they treat those who work for them, and not rely only upon the positive difference their work achieves for others?
After all, principle 7 of the Charity Governance Code is ‘openness and accountability’, exhorting charity boards to lead their organisation in being transparent and accountable. The rationale is the fundamental importance of the public’s trust in a charity delivering public benefit. Making accountability real, through genuine and open two-way communication that celebrates successes and demonstrates willingness to learn from mistakes, helps to build this trust and confidence and to earn legitimacy.
Shoosmiths is delighted to be hosting an all-day conference on whistleblowing in charities at the end of this month (Tuesday 28th February) in our London office, with guest speakers from those organisations on the frontline of whistleblowing in the sector – from the Charity Commission; from Protect, which operates the Commission’s whistleblowing helpline for charities; and from Whistleblowers UK, which campaigns for the introduction of an Office of the Whistleblower and is supporting the current Protection for Whistleblowing Bill.
A limited number of places remain available for those able to join us that day: Whistleblowing in charities conference 28 February 2023 (vuture.net)