Bullying and harassment took place ‘with impunity’ at all levels of the NCVO, report concludes

An independent review into the umbrella body's culture, seen by Third Sector, says staff from all marginalised groups experienced overt oppression

The NCVO's headquarters in north London

Staff members from all marginalised groups experienced “overt oppression” across all levels of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, according to an excoriating independent report into the umbrella body’s culture. 

The equality, diversity and inclusion report, seen by Third Sector, was compiled last year by external consultants. It found evidence of “bullying and harassment” on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation and disability happening “with impunity” at all levels of the organisation, leaving members of minority groups there feeling “unsafe at work”.

It also uncovered “overt and covert oppression”, favouritism and “institutional gaslighting” of junior members of staff. 

Consultants spoke to 87 members of the NCVO’s 105-strong workforce in a series of focus groups and interviews between February and April last year. The resulting report was distributed to staff in June but not published externally. 

Third Sector has seen the report a week after Karl Wilding stepped down as chief executive after just 18 months, having served at the organisation for 23 years in all. In a statement, the NCVO denied the report had contributed to his resignation.

Although a series of blogs published by the NCVO in August acknowledged that “EDI work” by the organisation had “highlighted mistakes”, and went as far as to admit, among other things, that the NCVO was “a structurally racist organisation”, this is the first time the full extent of the criticisms in the report have been laid bare. 

“All marginalised groups experience overt oppression across all levels of the organisation,” the report said.

“Staff at all levels of the organisation, up to and including NCVO’s management team, shared recent or current experiences of witnessing or being the direct recipients of bullying, harassment or discrimination. 

“Bullying and harassment were frequently targeted around protected characteristics including race, gender, sexual orientation and disability.”

It went on to say: “It is crucial to note that these are not isolated incidents, nor are they historical. They are also not limited to just one protected characteristic. 

“They are, instead, pervasive and systemic, indicative of a culture where overt oppression is allowed to continue with impunity.”

It said that such incidents were “disproportionately perpetrated by some middle and senior leaders” but were “experienced by junior staff”.

These incidents included the use of racist, ableist and sexist language, insensitive questions or remarks about an individual’s ethnicity or cultural background, and stereotyping, as well as aggressive body language used to silence staff in meetings. 

“The direct experience of overt oppression, bullying and ridicule has left staff from a range of minority groups feeling unsafe at work,” the report said. 

These incidents were “rarely, if ever, challenged directly or immediately by senior staff”, and there was a “culture of handling oppressive incidents informally”.

The report said NCVO’s internal HR function had confirmed “no incident has been reported and investigated through a formal grievance process in over eight years”, which led to staff feeling that raising incidents was futile.

The document also identified a pattern of what it described as “institutional gaslighting”, where junior staff members who complained would be “treated like the oppressor for raising the issue or accused of being ‘too sensitive’ or a ‘snowflake’”, and feared being “treated as the troublemakers”. 

One of the “main driving factors behind the lack of trust and the negative culture” identified in the report was a culture of favouritism, with an “in-crowd” that “held more influence than their role conferred and were protected from disciplinary action” and consisted “entirely of white, abled people”.

The report concluded that the main reason for the NCVO's EDI failure was its own belief that it was an expert on the sector, which it said was misguided, arrogant to the point of being oppressive and contributed to the silencing of those with different lived experience.

The senior leadership team and the management team were directly criticised over allegations of favouritism, their handling of a specific racist incident, and for prioritising “actions that preserve NCVO’s reputation over creating meaningful change”.

In its introduction to the report, the NCVO’s EDI steering group warned that the extent of the bullying and harassment uncovered had a direct impact “on NCVO’s ability to lead the sector authentically on EDI”.

The NCVO completed a restructure as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic at the end of last month. 

Following the report, an independent inquiry into specific allegations of bullying and discrimination it unearthed was carried out last year, alongside an independent review of the senior leadership’s handling of a specific racist incident. 

The conclusion of the inquiry and the review were presented to the board in October but were not shared with staff until this week, following the conclusion of the restructure.

Staff were told the NCVO had received 10 complaints through the inquiry and was now commencing formal investigations of these complaints.

In a statement, NCVO said it accepted the findings of the EDI report.

Priya Singh, who has been chair of the organisation since October, said the NCVO had approached its work on EDI “with integrity and transparency” and had been open with staff and the public that the report “had revealed deep-rooted cultural traits, behaviours and practices that are limiting the ability of NCVO to be inclusive, socially just and relevant”. 

She said: “We shared how shocked we were by the findings and we also acknowledged publicly that NCVO is a structurally racist organisation and that the same is true for sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism and disablism.”

She said the organisation had since taken “decisive action, going beyond the recommendations in the report” by establishing an EDI board sub-committee that had met fortnightly since September, supporting staff leading EDI work, providing EDI coaching for leaders and ring-fenced funding for EDI activity.

Singh said cultural change was “at the heart” of the NCVO’s new strategy and this change was underpinned by an EDI action plan.

“The board and leadership team are determined to tackle the issues highlighted in the report with a recognition that we still have much to learn and do,” she said. 

“As NCVO, we feel a responsibility to share our mistakes and our learning with the sector, but we are clear first we must get our own house in order.

“That is what we have been doing since last summer and we will continue to do.”

The NCVO denied the report had contributed to Wilding’s decision to step down as chief executive.

It said: “The review and inquiry, along with the EDI work last year, has shown that the culture at NCVO needs to change. 

“Karl believes that, as someone who has been part of the organisation for many years, he is not the right person to lead this cultural change. He believes that requires someone new, not someone part of the past.”

- This article was updated on 8 February 2021. It originally said the main reason for failure of the NCVO's culture was its belief that it was an expert on EDI. 

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