Andy Hillier: Oxfam got it wrong - but so, I suspect, have many charities

Yesterday's Charity Commission report confirmed that Oxfam protected its brand over the needs of abuse victims. The sector as a whole needs to learn from its mistakes.

Andy Hillier
Andy Hillier

After a tortuous 18 months, the Charity Commission's report on the Oxfam scandal has finally arrived.

In many ways, the findings are predictable. The commission concludes that the senior executive team and trustee board failed to make the right decisions in 2011 when faced with allegations of abuse by its workers in Haiti, essentially putting protection of the brand before the needs of those who had been exploited.

It says that Oxfam had a laissez-faire approach to safeguarding both abroad and here in the UK, despite consistently being cited as a leader in this field right up until the scandal broke last year.

Too often, the commission concludes, Oxfam dismissed the concerns of staff and victims who tried to raise the alarm.

Quite whether the decision to issue the charity with an official warning, rather than seek tougher action against the senior managers and trustees involved, will cut it in the court of public opinion remains to be seen. At first glance, however, the report seems to have struck a sensible balance.

Clearly, the executive, the board and indeed too many parts of the organisation had taken their eyes off the most important aspect of its work: protecting people from harm. But that's not something that happened overnight and is certainly not something Oxfam was guilty of alone.

Charity brings with it a power imbalance: one in which those with power and resources can assert their will over those without them. Toxic cultures can easily emerge unless proper checks and balances are put in place. We might naively like to think that all of those working on the front line are angels, but in reality they are human, and capable of flawed decisions and questionable practice.

In the wake of last year's safeguarding scandals, the number of serious incident reports to the commission rose sharply, highlighting the fact that protecting the people charities serve is a challenge across the sector.

Yesterday's commission report on Oxfam therefore provides a stark reminder that charities of all types and all sizes must ensure they are upholding the highest standards and have the right processes.

A good place to start is by looking at the measures that Oxfam itself has put in place in recent months. These range from tripling its investment in safeguarding and renewing appeals for survivors of abuse to come forward, to enhanced background checks on staff working in its shops and creating a clear line of communication between the chair of trustees and the head of safeguarding. Trustees and chief executives take note.

Oxfam got it wrong, but so have many other organisations. The important thing now is that Oxfam and the sector as a whole learns from past mistakes.

Andy Hillier is the editor of Third Sector 

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