Stella Smith: The sector has to be more decisive

Assuming people are altruistic has allowed us to turn a blind eye to poor people management, writes our columnist

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

It’s been a whirlwind few weeks. Revelations about the awful behaviour of some international aid staff have been shocking. Sad though it is, we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility that there will be more potentially damaging stories about charities lurking out there and people only too happy to publicise them. There’s a strong populist sentiment at the moment, and this brings with it a distrust of experts, elites or anyone perceived as setting themselves up to be "superior" in any way. For some, charities are guilty on all counts and fair game if there is evidence of malpractice. Our complaining that it’s not fair or that we’re being picked on only affirms our reputation as "snowflakes".

If we are serious about being transparent, about doing the very best for vulnerable people, we need promptly to acknowledge our shortcomings and take (and be seen to take) decisive action.

Perhaps the best place to start is by dismantling a long-standing sector myth: that people who work for charities have more integrity or a stronger moral compass than those who do not. Let’s be honest: people work for charities for many reasons and they are rarely purely altruistic. We’ve conveniently ignored this fact for too long and the assumption that people have their hearts in the right place has allowed us to turn a blind eye to poor people management and performance. Let’s acknowledge this uncomfortable truth, implement robust HR processes and insist on skilled managers who know how to get the best out of people and who, when necessary, are not afraid to sack persistent underperformers.

We also need to stop individual members of staff becoming too powerful. In some organisations, people have carved out niches for themselves, then worked furiously to protect their expertise and networks until a key aspect of the charity is dependent on them. They then become untouchable because their strong personalities and critical knowledge means nobody wants to challenge them. These people wield a disproportionate amount of power over other staff and beneficiaries, leaving them vulnerable to all sorts of abuse. To prevent this, we have to implement succession planning, mandatory knowledge sharing and rotation of staff, and ensure everyone knows nobody is indispensable.

When we make decisions it’s easy to give priority to whoever is standing nearest and shouting loudest – the funders, the staff or the trustees. We must take care that beneficiaries are represented. User involvement is one way of doing this, but it is a big ask for people who are often in very difficult circumstances to represent themselves in the organisation. Alternatively, a little imagination and empathy from everyone in a decision-making role would go a long way. We need to look at our decisions from the perspective of our beneficiaries, put ourselves in their shoes and think how we would feel, what we would want.

Unlike other sectors, charities are judged on each others’ behaviour. A scandal at one reflects on us all. It doesn’t help that some people are gunning for us, but we can’t blame our internal mismanagement on them. It is up to us, not our regulators, to ensure good people management in our organisations. It is the job of every charity leader to make this their very first priority, now, before the next scandal hits.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator


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