Debra Allcock Tyler: Like broken ribs, charity scandals are painful but heal eventually

It's best to deal with bad news in the open, writes our columnist, because people will remember whether you dealt with it well

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

On a recent break I got up in the middle of the night feeling unwell, fainted and, on my way floorward, collided with a chair and a desk resulting in a broken rib, a huge lump on my head and two gigantic black eyes. But as I was on holiday I didn’t have to do much so it wasn’t too bad. I realised properly how freaking painful a broken rib is only once I got home, and all of a sudden there were chores requiring torso movements – ergo lots of groans and wincing and the occasional muffled sob. I’ve complained so much Andy’s saying I’ve got "man rib".

It really hurts to breathe or cough, so you tend to stifle coughs, breathe shallowly, pray you don’t sneeze and glare angrily at anyone who accidentally makes you laugh. But the medical advice is to push pass the pain and cough and breathe deeply until it heals, otherwise you risk a nasty chest infection. The thing is you don’t realise the complications of a broken rib until you get one, then suddenly you understand why you do have to do stuff even though it’s painful.

It’s similar in our sector. Why do trustees of charities not automatically issue press releases to the world any time something goes wrong? Because they know that the vast majority of people don’t understand the charitable "condition". The media want a negative story because that sells and activates the trolls and keyboard assassins, which boosts advertising. And most folk react to the headline and don’t really read the whole story, so trustees risk losing support if they tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

I’m reminded of that iconic line in A Few Good Men, where Jack Nicholson memorably barks at Tom Cruise: "You can’t HANDLE the truth!" That’s why, when things go wrong, when your employees or volunteers break the rules or do terrible things, you have to assess the risk of going public. I have a lot of empathy with those trustees who say the risk of not laying everything bare is a lesser one than losing precious support for beneficiaries – which is, after all, the sole purpose of the charity in the first place.

However, this doesn’t remove the longer-term risk – the equivalent of a nasty infection – if we don’t deal with the pain and consequences of telling the truth. I’ve worked in charities for more than 30 years. I have seen many alleged and some real scandals over those years and one thing I do know is this: when you tell the truth, in the short term it is painful, but in the long term most folks forget the details of the bad thing that happened and mostly remember how you dealt with it. And the support eventually comes back.

So as leaders in charities, we need to breathe deeply, cough even when it hurts, laugh when we need to and know that if we do the right thing eventually most stuff heals.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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