Anthea Lawson: No one is exempt from toxic culture – however ‘good’ they are

Internal problems of bullying, racism, sexism and burnout share roots with the justice and rights issues that charities seek to fight. Photo: Hana Wolf

Why are reports of bullying, harassment and discrimination repeatedly occurring in organisations whose purpose is progressive change?

The National Lottery Community Fund is undergoing an external investigation into its leadership and organisational culture after allegations of bullying.

The Chartered Institute of Fundraising has faced allegations of failure to act on complaints about sexual harassment, followed by a much-criticised investigation.

Earlier this year an independent inquiry reported on bullying and harassment at the NCVO, the umbrella body for the UK’s volunteer organisations.

Last year the Charity Commission investigated Save the Children’s poor handling of sexual harassment allegations. The list goes on.

A few years ago I left my job as an NGO campaigns director to seek answers to why so many organisations, despite good intentions, replicate the same problems they purport to fix.

I interviewed campaigners and psychologists, and researched psychoanalytic and decolonial thought, applying them to my own experiences as a campaigner.

The news agenda reports each incident of harassment and discrimination as one separate scandal after another.

But oppressive and abusive dynamics, burnout-creating work patterns and saviour culture are connected. They are all manifestations of a way of relating to other people that is rooted in dominance and constructed hierarchies.

Our political and economic systems are rooted in the same patterns of dominance and constructed hierarchies, which is why they create inequality and injustice.

And these patterns erupt – through bullying, harassment, racism and sexism – even in people working to change or mitigate the effects of those unfair systems.

These patterns of relating run not just through the people who make and enforce the rules, but also through those trying to make things better.

We cannot be separate from what we want to change when we are up against an unhealthy culture that has shaped not only policies, but our thinking, perceptions and ways of being with each other.

That we are part of the problem we want to change is counterintuitive for campaigners. We are prone to think that someone else is responsible. It’s those bad guys over there. That’s what makes us the campaigners, after all.

Reports of abusive behaviour in organisations that are supposed to be making things better elicit a standard playbook of responses from their management.

There are apologies, and promises to strengthen their procedures, make an action plan, work on their culture.

It is, of course, necessary to apologise and say what will change. But reading their statements one after another, my unease grows.

I have been on an NGO senior management team and know how hard it is to change organisational cultures.

But my unease also comes from the dissonance I hear between that simultaneous acknowledgement: ‘Yes, this is our problem and we’re sorry,’ and the unspoken yet perceptible eagerness by those managers to reclaim their organisations’ status as ‘helpful’ and ‘good’.

What’s missing is a wider acknowledgment that bullying, racism, sexism and extractive working patterns run throughout the culture, and share their roots with the justice and rights problems that these organisations are fighting.

Next time this happens – indeed, it has happened already, it just hasn’t been reported yet – staff at the afflicted organisation might find it a relief to hear their managers say: ‘Yes, we are part of the problem, and so inevitably
the problem has arisen within us, too.’

It’s a tough admission.

It unsettles the easy polarities that create comforting boundaries between helper and helped, perpetrator and victim, good and bad. And, of course, the standard apology is choreographed with funding and donations in mind, which organisations are naturally worried about losing.

But people have the capacity to handle these entanglements, told honestly, because instinctively they make more sense.

It’s the denial of our entanglement in the problem that rankles: the sanctimonious insistence, however implicit, that because we are trying to make things better, we can hold on to our status as pure.

Anthea Lawson is a campaigner and author of The Entangled Activist: Learning to Recognise the Master’s Tools

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