Peter Gilheany: Corporate responsibility is not an overhead

Charities must maintain their distinction as entities with their mission and values built into everything they do

Peter Gilheany
Peter Gilheany

Last week, Forster Communications produced a report highlighting that our largest charities are lagging behind their business peers when it comes to their approach to corporate responsibility and sustainability.

The voluntary sector is awash with standards and frameworks covering every aspect of how organisations operate, but few charities seem to have a role dedicated to taking the helicopter view and considering the impact of how they operate in the round.

In a world where the lines between businesses, social enterprises and voluntary organisations continue to blur, it is more important than ever that charities maintain their distinction as entities with their mission and values built into everything they do, from what they are trying to achieve to how they want to achieve it.

Larger charities have more responsibility for this than others because, like it or not, charities are seen by many as a homogeneous group and a scandal involving a large one affects public trust and confidence in the sector as a whole, as Oxfam showed last year.

Having worked in and with the voluntary sector for 25 years, I’ve encountered many times the attitude that any activity that doesn’t directly relate to the end cause is an overhead and to be kept to an absolute minimum. Ally that to a long-hours working culture that romanticises devotion to the cause while ignoring collateral damage and you have the conditions that could lead to another reputational crisis and a blow to public trust in the sector.

So how do you tackle this issue? Unsurprisingly, leadership has a central role to play.

First, people who work for charities need to be given permission to focus attention on how they operate as well as what they are trying to achieve. This can’t just be the passive permission given by developing policies and practices, but needs to be actively encouraged and publicly valued, with lines drawn in the sand about what is unacceptable.

Second, senior leaders and chairs of trustee boards need to walk the walk themselves and devote more of their time to ensuring their organisations are progressive in how they operate and stay true to their values. As a starting point, they can ask and answer these questions:

  • Do we have someone who is responsible for looking at our corporate responsibility?
  • Do we regularly survey our staff on our working culture?
  • Do we have an environmental sustainability policy and programme of action?
  • Do we have a strong and supportive whistleblowing policy and practice?
  • Do we regularly engage our key external audiences on how we are operating?

Third, they need to be open and transparent with external audiences about how they operate, warts and all, as exemplified by the refreshing candour of Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, the recently appointed chief executive of Oxfam, on the problems within the organisation and what the charity is trying to do about them.

If all this sounds like a big commitment, you’d be right, but the outlay is dwarfed by the potential impact of poor corporate responsibility on critical issues such as staff morale and retention as well as engagement with donors, supporters, partners and stakeholders, not to mention the fall-out of a reputational crisis of the type that engulfed Oxfam. Dealing with something like that can divert huge amounts of precious resources away from the cause for days, weeks, months and even years after the fact.

There is one last and very powerful reason for leaders within charities to embrace this: it’s the right thing to do. Charities are all about trying to make a positive difference. In 2019, that difference cannot start at the door on the way out.

Peter Gilheany is PR director at Forster Communications

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