Recalibrating the moral compass

Recalibrating the moral compass

Photo credit -Ben Blennerhassett

2018 has been a challenging year for charities and not-for-profit organisations. Schools, International NGO’s and the Third Sector in general have collectively been in crisis with the emergence of widespread child and sexual abuse allegations, scandals and inquiries. This is a serious challenge to the reputation of the sector. These cases in schools are not limited to the UK either. The USA, Ireland and Australia are also now dealing with historic allegations. Only this morning the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison publicly apologised to the victims of child sexual abuse following a five year enquiry into a long list of organisations and community activities where children were vulnerable to abuse.

Not only are these scandals extremely serious and damaging for the public support they rely on, it is eroding trust as well as impacting management focus and employee morale. For a small, rogue few, the moral compass has spun out of control, with far-reaching consequences for the sector. Safeguarding is the current hot topic for trustees and leadership teams.

In the UK the year started with the publication of yet another sexual abuse inquiry. This time it was for the Catholic Benedictine independent schools Ampleforth and Downside. Its conclusions were blunt - number six in particular:

“Both Ampleforth and Downside prioritised the monks and their own reputations over the protection of children, manoeuvring monks away from the schools in order to avoid scandal. The known risk of child sexual abuse was thus transferred to other locations. Those who received them would sometimes not be adequately informed of the risk, with the result that constraints on access to children were not fully enforced.”

Oxfam then hit the headlines in February as Sean O’Neill from the Times broke the story of sexual abuse by Oxfam aid workers in post-earthquake stricken Haiti from 2011. Moreover, Oxfam came under intense scrutiny and criticism over how they dealt with the allegations and the alleged perpetrators at the time. They took the same approach – to manage their reputation over the victim’s basic human rights. Consequently they came under intense criticism and were accused of a cover up. Here is the former Oxfam CEO Mark Goldring being questioned by the House of Commons International Development Committee in February this year:

With very serious allegations and actions, prioritising organisational reputation over doing the right thing has come under serious scrutiny. This is wrong. You cannot escape from the truth as all public bodies are accountable to those that fund them. So what is being done about it? How are organisations going to better manage these risks?

Frameworks for change - for schools

The UK education regulator Ofsted has published a range of guidelines for headmasters, teachers and staff as well as governing bodies. These documents now provide clear statutory guidelines and legal requirements in respect to safeguarding of children under 18 in the UK education system. These are regularly updated. Ofsted also cover safeguarding policy in their strategy, which is “underpinned by three core principles”:

  • Children and students first
  • Independence
  • Accountability and transparency

The compliance mechanisms are also set out in the Ofsted inspectors guidelines. State funded schools are subject to Ofsted inspections. Most privately funded independent schools are inspected by their own standards watchdog, the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), who do report their findings to Ofted. Ofsted inspect around 1000 independent schools that are not members of ISI. It's complicated and unsurprisingly ISI has come under particular scrutiny following a stream of safeguarding scandals.

Frameworks for change - charities and the international development sector

Later in February the Charities Commission announced a suite of steps on safeguarding within the sector. These steps included a task force to deal with the recent spike in reported incidents, use of independent safeguarding experts to advise and support the sector, improved communication with informants and a summit on safeguarding for UK registered charities, donors, government agencies and international financial institutions. This summit took place last week (18 October) in London, with the International Development Secretary The Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt MP stating the sector “needs to get better” at four things, correctly putting the victims at the heart of the matter:
Preventing abuses happening in the first place
Listening to those when abuses happen
Responding decisively, and sensitively
And learning from each case we deal with
To achieve this, the UN and Bond, a UK network for organisations working in the aid and development sector, both produced policy papers guiding members how to drive change and get better at these four areas of priority.

What next?

Rupert Younger, director of the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation, stated earlier this year:

“The thing about the NGO and charity sector is that it’s more viscerally important to us as individuals than corporations. It’s partly because there is a degree of taxpayer funding, so there is a question of integrity in managing our money. And also because this is a sector where they are looking after and safeguarding very vulnerable communities. So damaging the very people they purport to help is hypocrisy on an emotional scale.”

Repairing this damage and restoring public confidence, support and trust is crucial not just from a reputation perspective, but for survival. Ampelforth has seen a decline in enrolment and in June Oxfam confirmed losing out on £16m of funding, leading them to cut programmes and back office staff. Public support has faltered too with donors cancelling their regular contributions. Supporters need to be reassured with real change across both sectors to ensure organisations are free of predators, as well as seeing evidence of the organisations values at work.

First priority is to ensure the safeguarding guidelines introduced are robust, understood and fit for purpose. A full employee awareness campaign and appropriate training must run concurrently. The victims of past or present offences must feel they can come forward, report, be heard and be fully supported. Employees need to know how to handle such reports.

An on going risk assessment of the issues and fixing where in the world they are prevalent should be integrated into wider risk assessments across all areas of operation globally. This will compel organisations to have a hard look at what they know and what they suspect. It is a difficult but necessary step. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know the full extent of it. This is standard practice in crisis and reputation management with any issue.

Prevention is the next priority and there are two strands to achieving this. Recruitment and organisational culture change. Cross-agency collaboration, pre-requisite checks and the recent announcement of a global register of dangerous criminals is another safety net to keep predators out of the aid sector. For me however organisational change is the key to the success of eradicating this ghastly blight. This is covered in Section 12 of the House of Commons International Development Committee report on Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector. With my peacekeeping background, this particularly chimed with me:

Kevin Watkins (Chief Executive of Save the Children) told us that the challenging context in which aid workers are operating has sometimes been used an excuse for unacceptable behaviour:

“I have seen it argued that, if you work in a difficult and dangerous place, you should somehow be subjected to a different set of rules and that the standards should be lower. There is only one rule that should apply to our mission and to our organisation, and that is that you treat other people as you would expect to be treated yourself.”

It's not OK to have your own rules, turn a blind eye because you are perhaps +/- 3000 miles from home, no one else knows, or that it is widely practiced locally. The individual and organisational moral compass must be completely aligned within the organisational culture, and that culture must live by organisational values. Colleagues need to have an active eye and ear on what is happening around them. A locally hired worker or beneficiary may suddenly change behaviour, a colleague may be saying or doing something inappropriate or an incident may occur that cannot be ignored or dealt with locally. Supporting whistle-blowers is equally important. All of these changes or refinements are absolutely necessary and must be embedded in the organisational culture.

Child abuse and sexual exploitation is abhorrent to the vast majority of people. Only those that practice it clearly think otherwise. Zero tolerance is the only policy. This is what the public expect and implementing all these guidelines, changes and reporting mechanisms will be a significant towards not just recovering from the damage, but more importantly, making each respective environment safe and free of this behaviour.

The very support aid organisations depend upon now need to rebuild public confidence and reassure supporters that all the recommendations coming out of the numerous inquiries, reports and hearings will have impact. Communicating this in a transparent and sensitive manner both internally and externally will be crucial. Progress needs to be understood, implemented and become part of organisational culture. Only then will credibility, public trust and support will then begin to recover.

Further Reading:

Ampleforth and Downside Investigation Report

Ofsted guidelines for schools “Keeping children safe in education

Ofsted Guidelines for inspectors

House of Commons International Development Committee report on ”Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector

Bond report “Our commitment to change in safeguarding

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