The Charity Commission for England and Wales has published a critical report on Oxfam GB following news reports last year about alleged sexual misconduct in 2011 in Haiti, with lessons for the whole charity sector to embrace.

The report, which is the result of a lengthy regulatory inquiry into Oxfam GB, pointed to a number of failings including the charity allowing a culture to develop where safeguarding issues could occur, failing to take seriously initial reports by whistle-blowers, and not fully dealing with problems which had arisen. The Charity Commission’s inquiry had looked widely at Oxfam GB’s governance and management, with particular focus on its safeguarding ethos, including policies and procedures which were in place and how they were or were not implemented.

In a foreword to the report, the chair of the Charity Commission, Baroness Stowell of Beeston, stressed that the issues which arose at Oxfam GB are not unique to that charity. The implications were relevant to the entire charity sector ‘because no charity is too small to bear its own share of responsibility for upholding the wider good name of charity.’ Lady Stowell also said, ‘No charity is so large, nor is its mission so important that it can afford to put its reputation ahead of the dignity and wellbeing of those it exists to protect.’

The lessons which come from the Oxfam GB report are valid for the charity sector as a whole, as the report itself stresses. Those lessons include:

  • Trustees bear collective responsibility and accountability for everything done by their charity – they must understand risks, ensure that risks are managed, and hold the charity’s executives to account.

  • Safeguarding responsibilities should be a governance priority for all charities – this is not an overhead to be minimised; it is a fundamental and integral part of operating as a charity.

  • Public expectations of charities working internationally, especially in the context of humanitarian crises, are high. Failure to take reasonable steps to protect people cannot be excused simply because the charity is operating in a difficult context.
  • Trustees must lead by example. They must set and own the charity’s values and behaviours, and conduct falling short of the standards expected must be dealt with appropriately.

  • Whistle-blowers should be treated with respect and sensitivity, and concerns raised by them should be taken seriously. Proper processes must be in place to listen to and assess concerns raised by whistle-blowers.

  • Incidents of harm to people must be dealt with properly, reported to relevant authorities, and lessons learned from them and acted upon. Seeking to avoid negative or critical media reporting when incidents have happened will not meet the duties imposed by law on charity trustees, nor will it protect the charity’s reputation.

As Lady Stowell says in her foreword to the Oxfam GB report, “being a charity is more than just about what you do, it is also about the way in which you do it.” The lessons from this report should be studied and embraced by charities of all shapes and sizes.