Stella Smith: Strong leadership is needed to change attitudes

We have to recognise that we are in deep water on ethics, and it's getting distinctly warm

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

The assumption that charity staff will behave ethically is a distinguishing feature of the sector. It encourages people to support us and donate their hard-earned cash. If anything dents that perception it is hugely damaging, not only to the charity concerned but also to the sector as a whole

So the revelations of fundraising malpractice, neglect of governance duties and, more recently, the terrible allegations of abuse of power by Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières staff threaten to seriously undermine the trust that is so critical to all our success.

However, the huge surge in reporting of safeguarding incidents to the Charity Commission this year suggests that these are not the only instances of misconduct in the sector. The uncomfortable truth is that there have been pockets of questionable conduct across the sector for some time. Charities deal with vulnerable people and donated money, and have unclear lines of accountability. When combined with stressful situations, these can provide a breeding ground for those who are inclined to abuse their positions.

So how do we respond to this and salvage our reputation? It seems that for a sector focused on challenging the behaviours of others we are remarkably timid when it comes to questioning our own. The Institute of Business Ethics has suggested that charities have individual codes of ethics, and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has published a draft code of conduct for the sector.

These seem rather lily-livered proposals bearing in mind the gravity of the situation. There is good intention in both initiatives, but a written code of behaviour will not result in the fundamental changes that are needed.

When it comes to behaviours, leadership sets the tone and context for what is and isn’t acceptable. If the leadership regularly turns a blind eye to bad behaviour, cuts corners when it thinks nobody’s looking or pretends not to hear that sexist comment or bullying remark, then it gives de facto permission for everyone to do likewise. What the leader does and doesn’t pay attention to tells others what is and isn’t important. A recent report by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation, Social Power: How Civil Society Can ‘Play Big’ and Truly Create Change, says that too many civil society organisations have become overly focused on money and calls for sector leaders to be bolder, challenging the status quo in their own organisations and beyond.

We need the leadership of our charities to stop thinking about funding and profile for a moment and to prioritise what is going on right here, right now in their own organisations. We need them to instigate honest conversations about power imbalances and abuse of power and to ensure that nobody in our organisations becomes so powerful that their behaviour is above reproach. Trustees, staff, volunteers – no one is irreplaceable. There is a fable about a frog being slowly boiled alive, the premise being that if a frog suddenly finds itself in boiling water it will react quickly and jump out

However, if the water is grad­ually heated over time, the frog gets lulled into a comfortable sense of security and by the time it realises it’s boiling, it’s too late. Our leadership needs to wake up and realise that the sector is in deep water and it’s getting distinctly warm.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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