Peter Gilheany: Charities need to focus on the how as well as the what and the why

Be up front and do not attempt to bury bad news, writes our guest columnist

Peter Gilheany
Peter Gilheany

"Do no harm". These were the wise words uttered by the chair of a family foundation I was doing some work for a few years ago. They were the core objective for the foundation and at the time I thought it was an incredibly unambitious thing to state. I’ve since realised just how fundamental the concept is to any organisation seeking to create social change.

Making a positive difference on any issue is really, really difficult and the road to change is littered with failures, some of which actually did more harm than good. For progressive organisations, but particularly so for charities whose whole reason for being is to effect social change, that reality needs to underpin everything they do.

It is too easy to focus on what you are trying to achieve and why, and to pay less attention to how you go about it. I’ve worked with charities that delivered tangible positive change around difficult and complex issues, but at significant cost to their own staff and suppliers. It is simply not acceptable to have a working culture that prioritises creating change for others above everything else.

The #MeToo movement is focusing a critical lens on how people, organisations and sectors go about their business and the extent to which sexual abuse, harassment and misconduct are excused and even enabled. The results are not pretty. The spotlight is currently on Oxfam, but many other people and organisations in the international development sector will be shifting uncomfortably in their seats at the moment.

So they should be, and so should any charity that hasn’t addressed its own working practices and performance in the past. Living your values is easy to say and much harder to implement, but it needs to go from the inside out – charities owe it to their staff, volunteers, donors and beneficiaries to front up on any poor practice and abuse that has taken place and take concrete, public action to do everything they can to minimise the chances of anything like that happening again.

Most research shows that trust in charities is slipping, but those levels of trust are still high compared with other sectors. It is incumbent on higher-profile charities in particular to take a lead on what they are doing to create and promote progressive working practices and approaches that go way beyond compliance and act as a beacon for how organisations should go about the business of delivering social change.

Some responses to the crisis at Oxfam have muttered darkly of conspiracy – that The Times is gunning for the charity after its equality report. Some have highlighted the government’s own less than stellar performance in this area. Others have pointed to the small number of "bad apples" who have dragged the charity’s reputation through the mud. They are all natural responses from those who want to protect an organisation that has delivered so much good and changed the lives of countless people for the better. But you have to stand to one side on an issue like this and recognise Oxfam is in this mess primarily because its working practices failed.

Charities need to be grown up about how they respond to and communicate on issues such as this. Be confident in stating the change you are seeking to make and communicate warts and all when your own performance hasn’t reached the standards expected of you. The concept of burying bad news needs to be consigned to the bin – any reasonable person is capable of lauding and supporting a campaign a charity is running while simultaneously being aware of the mistakes it has made or where it has not lived up to its values. It is much better that it hears about those problems straight from the horse’s mouth and to know that action is being taken.

Any attempt to communicate perfection is doomed to failure, so alongside the adage of "do no harm", more charities should adopt the exam advice of "show your working", both good and bad.

Peter Gilheany is PR Director at Forster Communications

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