Paul Streets: Post-Oxfam, the key is to improve on the ground

Small charities are often closer to their clients, which makes safeguarding issues clearer - but that doesn't mean they should be complacent, writes the chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation

Paul Streets
Paul Streets

The main rubric of patient safety training for medical students is "first, do no harm".

We would do well to apply this as we search our souls in the wake of the Oxfam furore. Any feelings of relief that it’s not us in the spotlight should be matched by rigour in re-examining our own practices.

The small and local charities we support work with vulnerable, marginalised and disadvantaged people facing tremendous challenges. Many are underappreciated hidden "healers", picking up the aftermath of sexual and physical abuse, dealing with domestic violence, trafficking, rape victims, historic child sexual abuse in adulthood and sex workers. But this also exposes them to risk.

Effective small charities have built-in early warning systems and high levels of beneficiary engagement, often with peer support provided by others with lived experience. These "communities of shared experience" are often highly supportive and protective of each other.

In these small charities the short distance between trustees and clients means the spotlight is close and bright, so incidents can be more visible. And the fact that local people support local people means they’re not as vulnerable to the risk the Oxfam story exposes, where external development workers from "foreign" agencies are contracted in, operating with less local support and oversight.

These factors might reduce risk, but don’t eliminate it and we should not be complacent. This isn’t a "small is beautiful; big is bad" story – people-powered change by its very nature involves people and human fallibility, so safeguarding matters for all of us and should make us aware that how we change the world for the better is as important as what we achieve.

Sometimes small organisations that support vulnerable people concentrate the risks. We know from abuse incidents across wider society that collusion between abusers in tight-knit groups gives cover, and imbalances in power can facilitate abuse and ensure it’s concealed.

From a funder’s perspective, we need to respond at three levels. First, what does it mean for existing practice? Is our due diligence before awarding a grant sufficient? How should we respond to incidents reported during the life of a grant?

Second, how can we support and encourage good practice in those we fund? Many of them will be wondering where to start in the blizzard of advice coming from funders, the Charity Commission and sector bodies. Third, how can we support our umbrella body the Association of Charitable Foundations in its wish to develop good practice standards?

Whatever steps we take, we need to balance action with proportionality, ensuring that above all else we help improve real practice on the ground. The worst thing that could happen is that regulators, umbrella bodies and funders impose multiple and competing requirements, chastisements to action and significant costs on charities in order to cover our own backs.

So "first, do no harm" seems a good place to start. In the meantime, those who want to cast the first stone at the poor can cancel their direct debits to Oxfam. I’ve increased mine. For decades it has reached millions and I trust that its leadership will learn from this, act and reach millions more.

Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation

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