Charities must be willing to hold themselves accountable for crises in a time of diminishing trust for the international aid sector, according to Kirsten Walkom, global communications director at Save the Children.
In a talk at a crisis communications conference run by Third Sector’s sister title PR Week about managing the "trust landscape", Walkom warned that people working for large charities and in the voluntary sector often laboured under the illusion that their broader mission was enough to excuse damaging behaviours in their day-to-day functions.
"Save the Children is the name on the tin: if you ask me what I do, I save children," she said. "That is easy and simple to understand, but many people in the sector often feel the importance and the purpose of the mission supersede scandal."
She added that a colleague once said in reference to a scandal: "’They won't be upset about this; we save children.’"
Walkom said: "That’s not a thing. Charities have to understand how people actually see you."
Third sector organisations, particularly those operating in the humanitarian and international aid sectors, had experienced a rapidly evolving landscape and diminishing levels of trust in recent years, said Walkom, citing historical scandals involving ActionAid and UN Peacekeeping.
She said it was vital for charities and private sector organisations seeking to manage trust levels within a rapidly changing environment to be conscious of the "halo effect", whereby organisations believe they are more trusted than public perception suggests.
"Many crises are caused by the culture of an organisation," said Walkom. "It’s not just within the aid sector: when you look at the #MeToo movement, or fraud and mismanagement in corporate sectors, it always comes down to culture."
Building and maintaining trust was crucial, she added, because when it failed the impact could lead to a loss of influence, reputation and, in many cases, revenue.
Walkom made no mention of the furore around Save the Children UK, currently the subject of an investigation by the Charity Commission amid claims by junior staff of misconduct and harassment by senior employees.
Accounts for the charity dating to the year ending December 2018 revealed that its overall income fell to £303m from £407m in 2017, including a £1m drop in funding from the general public.
Walkom did, however, address broader failings in trust over Save the Children’s international aid programmes and within the aid sector in general. "The sector and the way aid operates have changed," she said. "We’ve gone from being perceived as the darlings of the sector to the opposite."
Charities faced particular challenges around crisis management because they had a significant number of stakeholders to consider, she said, from beneficiaries and institutional and private donors to national and international governments.
Maintaining trust across stakeholders and through a crisis therefore demanded transparency around failings, Walkom added, ensuring that leadership and senior members of staff were willing to hold themselves accountable during crises and having a clear perception of how trusted the organisation was in the first place.
"International aid charities and others do a huge amount of good work, but this doesn't mean that we are trusted," Walkom concluded.
"The fact that we save lives does not give us the justification to behave or handle misconduct in any way we like."