Lewis Parker: Good governance should not fall by the wayside

Recent scandals in our sector show that it's not just about communications, but also about what we do, writes our guest columnist

Lewis Parker
Lewis Parker

Trust and confidence are crucial for any charitable organisation.

Without trust, they can’t access the finance they need in order to operate. Recent scandals, such as the ones that engulfed Oxfam and Save the Children, are inflicting damage not only on the individual charities, but also on the sector at large.

As with the cases of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, we should be glad that these abuses of power are being exposed. There can be no tolerance for this kind of behaviour.

In such moments of crisis, it’s easy for organisations to feel overwhelmed by a situation and make matters worse. We’ve seen this with Mark Goldring’s ill-fated interview in which he tried to excuse himself and Oxfam by saying: "The intensity & the ferocity of the attack makes you wonder, what did we do? We murdered babies in their cots?"

The answer created outrage, and rightly so. It went against every rule of crisis communications, portraying denial, entitlement and an utter lack of self-awareness. It also fuelled the flames and embedded the scandal further into the public consciousness.

People make mistakes – often. We’re human. We’re fallible. The same can be said for organisations. But they also need to ensure they have efficient plans in place for when things go wrong. Crisis and issues management are crucial to stopping potential failures and to minimising potential reputational harm.

Oxfam clearly didn’t have efficient such plans in place, and its response will give crisis communications professionals a hell of a case study for future training.

Last Friday, 22 leading UK aid and humanitarian agencies issued a statement. It was powerful, effective and just what was needed. It sent the right message. The organisations admitted their failures and pledged to put new processes in place. Only by working together will the charity sector face this next big challenge.

It’s also worth remembering that this isn’t just about communications. Charitable organisations aren’t judged only on what they say, but also on what they do.

Any charitable organisation should be ensuring it is working efficiently, abiding by good governance and speaking to the public openly. Of course each individual charity needs to be focused on ensuring its reputation is maintained, but given that the very nature of the work is about helping others, it also needs to be focused on professional processes and regaining trust for the entire sector.

The public want to see that charities are making a positive difference to the cause they are working for, that a reasonable proportion of donations make it to the end cause and, importantly, that they are abiding by good governance in a well-managed environment. Charities have been working well to achieve the first two points because it’s crucial to their fundraising efforts, but it’s allowed the focus on good governance to be sidelined.

Most people in the charity sector are working within it because they are passionate about helping others. But a lack of process, governance, safeguarding and financial transparency creates room for abuses of power that can taint the organisation in question and the sector for years to come.

By putting in place efficient policies that are regularly reviewed and updated, charitable organisations can ensure such mistakes do not repeat themselves, hopefully minimising the possibility of any future abuse. Similarly, by having more effective communications strategies, they can make sure that, if something does happen, it doesn’t come at the expense of the good work the organisation and the sector are doing.

Lewis Parker is strategy lead at Shape History

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