What trustees can learn from the NSPCC transgender dispute

In June, the NSPCC started and then abruptly ended a relationship with the transgender activist Munroe Bergdorf, prompting significant criticism, including from the charity's staff. Liam Kay looks at what went wrong and the lessons charities can learn

Munroe Bergdorf (Photograph: Dave Benett)
Munroe Bergdorf (Photograph: Dave Benett)

For a frantic week at the beginning of June, the children’s charity the NSPCC sat in the centre of a Twitter firestorm after deciding to cut ties with the transgender rights activist Munroe Bergdorf.

"So disappointed in @NSPCC childline for giving in to transphobic hatred," the
media personality Calum McSwiggan tweeted. "The NSPCC was the only charity mentioned in my will. I’ve just removed it and will be leaving a donation to an LGBT charity instead," a long-time donor wrote. "This is a really stupid argument. MB was dropped not for being trans, but for being unsuitable to work with a kids charity," another donor shot back.

Angered

Bergdorf was equally angered by the decision to drop her. "They didn’t even contact me," she told the BBC. "They didn’t even contact my representatives or me. They just released a statement.

"I called Childline days before this happened and said ‘guys, you’re probably going to get some pushback’. And they said ‘don’t worry, everything’s fine, we’re fully prepared, we knew what we were getting into when we asked you to be on board.’ And I could hear in their voices that something wasn’t right."

There followed widespread opprobrium in the press and on social media towards the NSPCC for its treatment of Bergdorf. A letter opposing the decision from approximately 150 staff at the charity was delivered to the NSPCC’s leadership.

After several days of silence, Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, issued a "full, frank and unreserved" apology, which was accepted by Bergdorf.

In the lengthy statement issued on 12 June, Wanless accepted criticism of the way the charity handled the episode. He added that the board had made the decision because of statements Bergdorf had made on social media that breached the charity’s safeguarding and equality policies.

"We have let Munroe down in not supporting her through a process with us and in ending the relationship abruptly," the statement said. "We know that we need to review our processes and decision-making in relation to how we engage and employ ambassadors, advocates and campaigners in our work."

For Louise Thomson, head of policy for not-for-profit at ICSA: the Governance
Institute, the first and most important of these lessons is that charities scenario-plan for the possibility of any controversy involving a celebrity partner.

Slip up

"If the individual approached is absolutely integral and vital to raising awareness and then they slip up, there should be some planning going on for how you handle that and media messaging," she says. "You don’t want to unnecessarily hinder the person they are, because that’s what attracted you to them in the first place. They’re not an employee."

Lisa Power, co-founder of the gay rights charity Stonewall, is an LGBT+ consultant and was a policy manager for 17 years at the HIV and sexual health charity the Terrence Higgins Trust. She believes the NSPCC fell victim to a common fault in charities: "trying to be right-on" without actually thinking through the changes that need making. "When something goes wrong and you need a quick response, it might not be in accord with the rest of your principles," she says.

When facing criticism on social media, charities also have to remember that platforms such as Twitter are not representative of the wider public. Power says it is important for charities to have proper due diligence in place, both for patrons and critics of the charities’ decisions.

In the case of the NSPCC, some of the online criticism came from people antagonistic towards trans rights issues, and the charity’s response made it look like it had caved in in the face of bigotry.

There should also be a formal agreement on the "red lines" for both the charity and the individual, with an understanding of the consequences of crossing those lines and how the situation will be handled by the charity.

"It all comes back to preparation," says ICSA’s Thomson. "If you prepare properly and something does go wrong, you can both come out of it with dignity and be seen to be honouring your culture and your ethics and values."

Staff feelings

Boards must ensure that they take into account the feelings of staff, or else they could face an internal backlash similar to the one at the NSPCC. Power says that boards need to maintain a close relationship with staff at the organisation to keep a united front in times of crisis.

"In this case, it feels like a number of people high up in the organisation were not sufficiently plugged in to the original decision, and whoever was advising them was not able to explain to them the consequences of their kneejerk response," she says. "It is really important that staff at a charity and the trustees are on the same page, and that bad decisions are not imposed by people panicking.

It is when you have a panicked situation that a fault line will show up."

Importantly, Power says, charities such as the NSPCC have to understand that embracing diversity issues has to involve cultural change throughout the organisation, not just statements and rainbow Twitter profiles during Pride month.

"Diversity is not something you can put on and take off like a coat – it has got to be all the way through the organisation," Power says. "If you are going to have ambassadors that you are appointing because of their diversity, you have to be capable of actually working that through and not just see them as a nice piece of window dressing."

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