We didn't say sorry fast enough, says Oxfam's head of communications

Matthew Sherrington tells the IoF annual convention that the charity at first suffered from 'internal bewilderment' when The Times broke the sexual misconduct story in February

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

< This article has been amended; see final paragraph

Oxfam should have apologised faster when the safeguarding scandal first broke, its director of communications has said.

Speaking at the Institute of Fundraising’s annual convention in London this morning about the lessons learned from the scandal, Matthew Sherrington said the charity was taken aback by the scale of the story, and mistakenly reacted defensively when it was first published by The Times newspaper on 9 February.

He said that because the allegations dated back to a case that happened in 2011, which was closed as far as the charity was concerned, there was a sense of "internal bewilderment" about what was happening.

We were alleged to have covered up what had happened in Haiti – something we completely reject, but we have to wait to see what the Charity Commission concludes on that," he said.

"We started off being quite perplexed because we did not understand why this was such a big story."

Oxfam took advantage of offers of pro-bono advice from four communications agencies during the first weeks, said Sherrington.

"We were told we just had to suck it up," he said, because there was no room in a media story for explanations and so no point arguing over the details.

"There were stories that were false, and we pointed out they were false, but they were still published," he said.

He added that the charity did not get the tone right for the first few days, "and that was a real lesson".

Oxfam apologised fully on day three, but it was already too late. Sherrington said the charity should have apologised faster for what had happened.

He said the charity was front-page news for 13 consecutive days after the scandal started, only to be pushed off when the "Beast from the East" weather front arrived.

Events the charity had been planning, including a comedy night with a number of well-known comedians, had to be cancelled after the story broke because it would have set the wrong tone.

Nicola Tallett, fundraising director at Oxfam, displayed a graph that showed a large spike in direct debit cancellations in February.

In seven months, the level of cancellations reached the total the charity had expected over the course of a year, she said.

The graph did not say how many donors had cancelled their direct debits.

But Tallett said the charity had received significant help from some long-term supporters, including one major donor who offered to loan the charity £40m. Oxfam did not take up the offer.

This donor instead stumped up £10m to underwrite some projects that would otherwise have been cancelled, said Tallett.

Sherrington said 95 per cent of donors had stayed with the charity, which was humbling.

< Oxfam has asked us to clarify several points made in the original story. We have updated the story to reflect these changes.

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