Andy Hillier: Save the Children highlights the need for good governance

Sir Alan Parker is right to step down as chair. His ongoing presence placed a cloud over the charity, writes the editor of Third Sector

Andy Hillier
Andy Hillier

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Sir Alan Parker stepping down as chair of Save the Children International is not the fact that he’s gone, but the fact he remained in post for two months after the charity was the subject of intense media criticism.

The writing was on the wall for Parker when further allegations about how the charity had dealt with allegations of sexual harassment by senior members of staff came to light in February.

The fact that both Justin Forsyth, the former chief executive, and Brendan Cox, its former policy officer and widower of the murdered MP Jo Cox, had seemingly been allowed to leave without facing sanctions for their behaviour had all the hallmarks of a charity trying to protect its reputation.  

Reports in the national media of how Parker, a multi-millionaire PR mogul, had alledgely tried to circumvent the charity’s HR procedures by employing his own legal team to effectively support the accused were damaging not only to him personally but also to the charity’s reputation as a fair employer.

Parker has always denied allegations of a cover-up and a Charity Commission investigation is ongoing to determine exactly what happened at Save the Children. But given the nature of the allegations, Parker remaining as chair was always going to leave a cloud hanging over the charity.

Once again, the case raises questions about what constitutes good governance in the charity sector and the culpability of the board when things go wrong.      

Parker was another example of a wealthy, heavy hitter of the type that major charities crave to have on their boards. Such people have great contacts and help to in bring the donations, but they tend to bring with them with a corporate outlook and rather full diaries.

In the case of Kids Company, the allegation levelled against its board of heavy hitters was that they failed to exercise their trustee responsibilities properly and failed to keep in check its charismatic chief executive, Camila Batmanghelidjh.

The lessons that other charities can take from the Save the Children case would seem to be about the need for the board to hold the senior executive team to account in a proper fashion. Boards need to remain impartial and be fair in their dealings with all sides. And when issues come to light, they must follow best HR practice and not allow personal friendships to get in the way.

As for the chair of the board, if you’re facing widespread revolt and serious accusations that you know you’re going to struggle to defend, it’s best to go – and go fast. Announcing your resignation some months later risks heaping more misery on your charity and its hard-working staff.

Save the Children remains a great charity, working with some of the most vulnerable young people in society. Let’s hope a new chair is appointed soon and it can move on from this sorry episode.

Andy Hillier is editor of Third Sector

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