Peter Gilheany: Charities to need to think about the journey, not just the destination

In the future, they will not be able to point solely to the outcomes, but will have to show their workings

Peter Gilheany
Peter Gilheany

I suspect the recently published report examining what happened at Oxfam in terms of safeguarding caused a few charity chief executives to squirm in their seats.

When you head an organisation whose sole reason for being is to deliver its mission, the temptation must be to focus on that to the exclusion of almost everything else.

It’s not that different from the drive to deliver short-term shareholder value that has landed so many publicly listed companies in hot water over the years. It’s never been acceptable for an organisation to act in this way, but in our social media age it’s now virtually impossible to keep the fall-out from this approach on the QT.

Reputation and status are vitally important assets to charities. They are the currencies that help an organisation to extend its reach, influence and impact, and to deliver better outcomes for its end cause or beneficiaries. When they lose value, the organisation is negatively affected, so it is imperative for charities to be proactive in this area.

Charities, by definition, are values-led organisations, and those values should be lived and breathed through everything they do, not ditched, ignored or compromised in the desire to make a tangible difference in the outside world. Bullying, harassment, unmanageable workloads and unethical practices are too high a price to pay for progress on any issue. The end does not justify the means.

So a charity that wants to achieve change and do it in the right way needs to invest in creating a positive working culture that ensures staff and ethics are not a casualty of that change.

The best place to start in building that culture is at the top, with chief executives and directors leading by example and measuring and celebrating the impact of their organisation in terms of how it delivers against its mission as well as what it does.

Transparency internally and externally is crucial to creating such a culture: talking honestly and openly about any issues, problems and failures; supporting staff and others to speak up when they see something they think is wrong or don’t agree with; admitting when mistakes have been made and then taking the appropriate and proportionate action to rectify them.

All that is easy to write and much harder to enact. It’s simpler to just focus on adhering to various external policies, standards, frameworks and guidelines – not difficult in a sector awash with them.

The trouble with this approach is that it can obscure the big picture of how an organisation is behaving, relegating issues to a single aspect of its operation rather than as part of its wider culture and working practices.

At the moment there's no momentum for a more holistic approach like corporate social responsibility within the business world. It isn’t about apeing what CSR is doing in businesses, but it should be about coming up with an approach that provides an equivalent helicopter view and framework for civil society organisations.

The recent report from Civil Society Futures recommended the adoption of a new Pact: four commitments around power, accountability, connection and trust that can help civil society maximise its reach and impact. These are much more about how civil society organisations work and could form the sector equivalent of CSR.

Whether it is Pact or something else, there is an urgent need for the sector to build some collective momentum and action in this area.

In the future it will not be good enough to point to the end result and the positive difference an organisation has made. It will have to show its workings.

Peter Gilheany is PR director at Forster Communications

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