Craig Dearden-Phillips: Oxfam report is a reminder that many charities still live in the dark ages

What we have to learn is that the sector can no longer tolerate bad behaviour from senior staff

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

Bad just got worse for Oxfam. The Charity Commission report this week revealed little we didn’t already know, but reminded us of what happens when a culture goes wrong. It came after similarly damning reports on Save the Children and Amnesty International, both of which allowed the wrong kind of leadership to take hold and prosper.

So what are we learning? If there is one thing we have a problem with in our sector, it is that the cause always comes first. And if this damages the people who work for the charity (or even individual beneficiaries in the case of Oxfam) then this is regrettable but necessary.

Of course it is never put like this. But the long hours, incessant deadlines, imperious culture and haranguing style deployed by many charity leaders are all evidence that the expendability of people is the actual, if not espoused, belief of many senior people in our sector.

The vast majority of such leaders are not "bad people" in the traditional sense. On the contrary, their motivations are, mostly, good. But they rationalise their bad behaviour: the outbursts, the sex, the mind games, the incessant pressure on the grounds that without it the cause they love will suffer.

Fortunately, times are changing. More leaders, especially younger ones, recognise this argument for the nonsense it is.

They know, in their bones, that if leaders want to create successful charities they also have to create caring atmospheres at all levels in their organisations.

These leaders know that if people are to do their best work for beneficiaries they need to feel psychologically safe, valued and trusted. Instinctively, these leaders understand the link between healthy staff and a healthy organisation.

Have we learned the lessons of Oxfam, Amnesty and Save the Children? Yes and no. Yes, in that increasing numbers of organisations are taking poor behaviour and culture seriously as a risk to operational success. Yes, in that mental health at work is now something to which more organisations are committed to supporting.

But no in that many dinosaurs still walk the earth in charities. Sit down in a room with a group of charity staff and you will not have to wait long to hear a story of bullying, harassment or deeply unpleasant behaviour from a senior leader. I see and hear about this all the time in my work with leaders and it depresses me in that it seems, if anything, to be getting worse as pressure on our sector grows.

So my money is on Oxfam not being the last ugly scandal to hit our sector. Until we hit a point where the penny finally drops that a fantastic cause requires correspondingly fantastic leaders and organisations, we will be stuck in the dark ages.

Which, sadly, is where many of our charities live.

Craig Dearden-Phillips is an independent adviser to chief executives and boards, and leads Social Club, a network of social purpose leaders

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