Right now, the fear within the charity sector is palpable. It is evident in the silence when social justice is relentlessly politicised. It is visible by the lack of sector reaction when there is yet another charity leak.
It is obvious in the defensive reactions of charities when a scandal breaks about the inner workings of their organisation.
Reports of racism, bullying and harassment plague the sector – and are not going away. It is the legacy of a sector that has come to reflect and embed the very same oppressive structures it is supposed to work against.
This is a systemic issue: as the anti-racism expert and activist Martha Awojobi wrote in a Third Sector article over the summer, the sector needs to “sit with the uncomfortable truths of the system that we are complicit in and the harm that it perpetuates”.
In another column, the author Anthea Lawson challenged charities to acknowledge that “bullying, racism, sexism and extractive working patterns run throughout the culture, and share their roots with the justice and rights problems that organisations are fighting”.
Not only do charities need to sit with these uncomfortable truths and acknowledge the oppression within their organisations, they must do so honestly, humbly and, most of all, publicly.
Yet instead, the sector seems paralysed by fear: of being found out and called out. Fear of no longer being seen as “the good ones”.
Fear of irreparable damage to reputations and losing money because people think that tackling injustice is “too political” or outside the remit of charities.
This is nothing new. But it masks a far greater danger facing the sector: that fear will stop charities from undertaking the vital, and long-term, work to tackle oppression and address inequity.
For fear of being found out, charities choose to prioritise self-preservation and self-interest over the safety of minoritised and marginalised groups, both internally and externally.
And, as a result of fear, charities simply will not have the credibility, experience, expertise or empathy needed to play their part in building an equitable, just and sustainable society.
I have seen people working in the sector liken the response of charities facing investigation and public criticism for internal oppressive practices to Darvo – the ‘deny, attack, reverse victim/offender’ tactic used by psychological abusers.
Based on their behaviour, this description is apt – and it is fuelled by fear.
It’s time to face the fear head-on. To stop hiding behind the excuse of “not being political” and start tackling the inequity and oppression within organisations in plain sight.
I work with organisations to build anti-racism into their brand – not to make them look good with empty statements of solidarity, but so they are open and transparent about what they are actually doing to tackle inequity and injustice.
They must listen to minoritised communities and understand the true reality of oppression, in a continuous, long-term process that leaves them open to feedback, criticism, learning and unlearning along the way.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations recently published the outcomes of its investigation into serious complaints of discrimination and bullying.
In an accompanying blog, interim chief executive Sarah Vibert described its programme of far-reaching culture change as a “seismic shift”.
Would this have happened if the original report hadn’t been leaked to the press?
I don’t think so. An “EDI action plan” was already underway and ex-staff continue to criticise the lack of accountability and length of the process. But in publicly acknowledging the harm caused to its people, and being honest about its cultural failings, the NCVO has made a first step toward open learning.
Being called out isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a charity – it may be a necessary step to heal harms that have been caused for decades or even centuries.
It’s far worse to perpetuate and uphold deep-rooted systems of oppression: and that’s exactly what charities will continue to do if they don’t face this fear head-on.
Collette Philip is founder and managing director of Brand by Me, a strategy consultancy that helps organisations build brands that tackle inequity and drive injustice.