Joe Saxton: Questions we must ask to avoid another Oxfam

Our columnist offers his tips on how the sector can steer clear of another scandal

Joe Saxton
Joe Saxton

So how should we respond when one of the UK’s best-known charities is next being slated in the news? Here are some questions we need to ask ourselves so we can reduce the chance of more unpleasant revelations because we failed to be proactive or prepared.

Is this an isolated incident? Every example of child or sexual abuse, whether by the Catholic Church, in sports teams or in local authority premises, or in Roth­erham, has appeared to be an isolated incidence initially, and has then turned out to be anything but. We can be almost certain of multiple revelations from many countries and aid agencies in the coming months and years.

Is the bad behaviour incidental or part of the system? It becomes clearer with each new revelation that safeguarding is a bigger issue than one incident in Haiti, and some seem to have been aware of this for some time. When the Olive Cooke furore emerged, it was a predictable car crash, but the sector has turned a blind eye to the public’s dislike for many modern fundraising methods.

How does our perspective colour our judgement? The Oxfam scandal is a clear example of how perspective colours judgement. Those who don’t like overseas aid or the UK’s 0.7 per cent commitment, or just don’t like charities, are quick to condemn. Those who like Oxfam or charities have been much slower to condemn and more forgiving. We are all prejudiced now. This makes us bad at seeing our weaknesses.

Do good works ever excuse bad behaviour? It is tempting to try to excuse or balance appalling events by saying that a charity does good work. If we have any moral standards at all, abuse or harassment or upset are not all right if they are perpetrated by people who do good works. It’s no consolation to the sexual abuse victims that the perpetrators are aid workers, Catholic priests or rich businessmen. Good intentions and good works don’t excuse what happens at the Presidents Club dinner or in an Oxfam house in Haiti or when fundraising leaves people disenchanted and fed up.

What do we mean by transparency? Transparency should mean that the things we know that matter to people are easy to find out about. Transparency is not just about things being available if you dig deep enough. If you can find that Oxfam is the subject of a statutory inquiry on the Charity Commission’s page about Oxfam, you are doing better than me. For those who want to know a charity chief executive’s salary, you have to dig very deep into a charity’s annual accounts.

What would my organisation have done, and what is it doing? One thing is clear: every organisation needs to decide how it handles these kinds of revelations, preferably before they are in the eye of a media storm. Has it helped Save the Children to play down Justin Forsyth’s behaviour? Make no mistake, decisions to proactively reveal sensitive information are never easy.

And what issue is next? Those in the aid sector appear to have some inkling that safeguarding was an Achilles heel for them. So now is the time to tackle some of those issues before the disaster strikes or the media gets the bit between its teeth: in other words, before the car crash.

Joe Saxton is the founder and driver of ideas at the research consultancy nfpSynergy


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