Analysis: Should charities come clean about critical internal reports?

After another internal report alleging a racist and discriminatory culture at a charity comes to light, Rebecca Cooney asks communications experts what steps organisations that find themselves in this position should take

(Photograph: Tayeb Mezahdia/Pixabay)
(Photograph: Tayeb Mezahdia/Pixabay)

This piece has been amended, please see final paragraph.

Most, if not all, journalists firmly believe – in principle, anyway – that if there is an unpleasant truth to be told, a skeleton in a cupboard, it is better to have it out in the open to be discussed, dissected and dealt with; or, at least, given a proper burial.

The charity sector has seen its fair share of skeletons tumbling out of cupboards in recent months.

In February, the leak of an internal report from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations revealed concerns that staff from “all marginalised groups experience overt oppression across all levels” of the membership body.

The NCVO report had been distributed among staff eight months before it became public knowledge – at which point it became clear that the public statements the charity had previously made referring to equality, diversity and inclusion work had seriously underplayed the damning criticisms in the report.

The story prompted an outpouring of stories of discrimination, harassment and abuse from across the sector, many under the social media hashtag #NotJustNCVO.

And just last week, The Independent published revelations that an internal audit at the young women’s charity Girlguiding had found shocking instances of racism and Islamophobia against staff and beneficiaries.

The Girlguiding audit was commission in February 2020 and reported on internally in the autumn before being made public in The Independent this month.

As these stories continue to come to light (or, in many cases, are acknowledged as open secrets for the first time), many organisations will have been moved to begin getting their own houses in order.

But once a charity has engaged in some serious soul-searching and is presented with a damning report detailing serious failings embedded into the very culture of its organisation, such as those received by the NCVO and Girlguiding, it is then presented with a choice.

It can either make the contents of the report public, own up to its faults and commit to doing better, or it can decide to prioritise its reputation (which, after all, is likely to be one of its key assets) and keep schtum, while hoping to deal with the problem internally.

Does the (admittedly, slightly self-interested) journalistic maxim hold true? Should the charity come clean, and attempt to get ahead of the story, or are some skeletons best left undisturbed?

Adeela Warley, chief executive of CharityComms, acknowledges that “there will be times when addressing these issues must be an internal process, creating safe spaces to support and protect staff who have experienced abuse and discrimination”.

But, she says, the need to deal with those matters internally should not mean the charity is silent about its issues.

“Externally, charities need to be as open and authentic as they can be about their organisational experience and their commitment to learning and implementing positive change,” she says.

Martha Awojobi, director of the consultancy JMB Consulting, argues that any hope of being able to keep such a report under wraps is slim.

“The truth will come out in the end anyway,” she says, adding that the case for disclosing such a document is about more than PR.

“This is about accountability; accountability to staff of colour, to the racialised women and girls that they work with, who will already have experienced harm,” she says.

“Charities need to acknowledge the lasting damage of institutional racism, and to do it publicly, if there is any hope of reconciliation with racialised people.”

Kirsty Marrins, a digital communications consultant, agrees that the truth is likely to come out on its own, given time, because the succession of stories in recent months has made people braver about talking about their own experiences.

And as she points out, an organisation that conducts a review like this must have at least a suspicion that all was not well, and should have at least started thinking about solutions.

She understands why organisations might be hesitant to go to the mainstream press, but ultimately, she says, “journalists are journalists – you can’t control who they might speak to and what they might say, but you can control what you’re doing about it and the apology that should follow”.

So the question becomes not so much whether to go public, as how to do it – too many apology statements don’t include any responses that “seem like real action”, says Marrins.

“Organisations need to choose their language wisely. For example, when they say: ‘We’re shocked by the findings of the report,’ that just seems disingenuous,” she says.

“These stories have been coming out or allegedly taking place over years and years, so to say you’re shocked sounds a bit like trying to pretend the problem wasn’t as bad as it is and that you weren’t aware of it.

“Given how daming some of the evidence is, that just can’t be true.”

In addition, she says, taking “real action” could mean having to face up to some hard truths for senior management.

“Where an issue is so prevalent and endemic, it seems impossible that senior leadership didn’t know about it,” she says.

Marrins warns that if they did know about it and it had been going on for years, then senior leadership would need to go: “Often when leadership doesn’t step down, they are viewed to be part of the problem.”

But she also says the need for real action and accountability means that even though charities should aim to make the report public, they should also take a moment to consider their next steps.

“You can’t share it until you know what you’re going to do about it, and that’s not going to be straight after the report is produced,” she says. “In these situations, it probably needs to go to board level as well.”

But equally, says Marrins, the aim should still be to move swiftly in terms of identifying an action plan and acting on any recommendations in the report.

Once the report is shared internally, she says, the clock is ticking, as staff might feel compelled to share the report if they did not think change was forthcoming.

Clear internal communications are also vital in helping to repair the relationship with staff who have been harmed by the culture up to this point, and in terms of laying the foundations for a new and improved culture, she says.

“Staff need to know what’s happening first, before they read it in Third Sector. They need to be told about the report, about the action that’s going to take place – they need to be informed and involved and included.”

Awojobi agrees, and argues that, ultimately, the focus should be on justice and accountability, not just the charity’s public image.

“Our sector leaders are preoccupied with being seen to be ‘good people’ and this image of the charity sector as doing ‘good work’ is already rooted in paternalistic racist ideologies,” she says.

“It’s time for our sector to embrace transformative justice, and public accountability is such an important part of that. We owe it to ourselves as a sector, and we owe it to racialised people.

“Attempting to hide that reality and the impact it has for people of colour is deeply insulting and a deliberate attempt to avoid accountability while continuing to perpetuate harm.”

This article has been amended to reflect that the Girlguiding report was commissioned in February 2020, not January as originally stated. It was also updated to reflect the fact the Girlguiding proactively approached The Independent with the results. 

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