Editorial | Oxfam highlights time for charity sector change

publication date: Apr 12, 2018
author/source: A conversation between Jim Hilborn and Ken Wyman, edited by Ann Rosenfield

Every charity leader's nightmare has descended upon hapless Oxfam. The problem is not only sexual harassment by a few employees of Oxfam and other NGO staff.

#MeToo and #TimesUp are the result of years of assault, exploitation, denial, and secrecy. Exposing this and calling for major changes arrives not a moment too soon.

Doctors, dentists, teachers, coaches, religious leaders, and others from the caring professions also get charged for sexual assault, and we read about them in the news far too often.

Nor is it limited to sexual assault. Lawyers are caught stealing from trust funds, bankers are convicted of embezzling, bus drivers and pilots fail alcohol blood tests, journalists falsify stories, clerks in stores steal merchandise, cash, and credit card numbers. All of this occurs in charities too.

The charity sector is not immune to the problems that other sectors have. The problem has been the societal norms that have for so long looked the other way and accepted the idea that “boys will be boys.”

The added dose of trust and camaraderie amongst those who work and volunteer in the charity sector may make the problem worse. With such trust, organizations don’t put in place adequate systems to verify appropriate behavior. The naïve assumption that ‘we are all good people' provides a cover for those who intentionally take advantage of charities and the people they serve. There are also more complex situations when a good person does bad things, because of their internal contradictions, addictions, and despair. Whatever the reason, there is no excuse for the charities that allow it to happen.

The sector’s involvement with vulnerable people adds another complication. Relying on trust is not adequate when you have tremendous disparities in power.

In addition to power imbalance, the further the charitable activities are taking place from headquarters the greater the risk that inappropriate behavior may occur without getting stopped.

Is the solution to have policies on each potential problem afflicting society sitting in a binder at headquarters?

One way to safeguard vulnerable people is with engaged and aware boards. Board and management need to have proactive measures in place with regular monitoring and spot checks.

All charity boards should have a Human Resources specialist on the team, in the same way that charities routinely have a lawyer and an accountant on the board. They are needed to ensure the proper policies and procedures are implemented effectively.

Charities prepare annual financial statements, often audited by independent outside experts. They should also do annual HR audits, looking into practices, and asking for concerns to be raised, to seek out issues before they fester.

Whistleblowers in charities should be able to contact an independent organization, outside the charity that employs them, so they can report problems early, without fear of repercussions.

Depending on the alleged crime, it may also be a good idea to create an offenders list, to prevent people from moving on to another charity and repeating the offense. This would be difficult to implement because of libel laws. In addition it creates a system of double-jeopardy, making it hard for people who are genuinely remorseful and rehabilitated to participate fully in re-entering society. Organizations with experience in dealing with people who have been in conflict with the law, such as the John Howard Society, and Elizabeth Fry, may have valuable insights on how to manage this process.

When a problem arises, boards and management need to confront the situation. Far too often they don’t want to confront issues. If leadership are faced with a criminal, ethical, or moral breech, it is viewed as being better to not make a public spectacle out of it out of fear of reducing the reputation of the charity and it’s fundraising.

In addition to better board and management oversight, there is also a role for regulation in this area. In Canada, we already have adequate rules around foreign activities. Some in the sector are more inclined towards a model of voluntary standards and, although there is a lot of good that can come out of voluntary standards, they also have significant limitations. We need to also have binding minimum rules for charities operating inside and outside of Canada.

In the UK charities have two options when they discover abuse. First, you can report it to the police or the Charity Commission. Second, they can disclose on their public filings that they had a serious incident that has not been disclosed to a regulator. This system serves as deliberate encouragement for charities to report abuse to the appropriate parties in order to avoid having to disclose such problems to the public where it may hurt donations, and ultimately reduce the resources needed to help vulnerable people.

Canadian charities should have a similar question on the T3010. Currently in Canada you can have fraud or improprieties at a charity and it is neither disclosed to the police nor the CRA.

The UK Charity commission also provides extensive guidance on these topics although there is very little from CRA. In the UK there are suggestions that there be a separate regulatory authority set up only to police international development organizations. There have been suggestions recently that we should have that in Canada as well.

Sadly, adding these extra measures, necessary though they may be, will inevitably increase administrative overhead costs, which are reviled by those who believe charities must operate on a shoestring.

There is no question that this common societal reality of sexual abuse did not confine itself to distant outposts of Oxfam or to the international development sector alone. Oxfam is now paying a heavy price for the bad behavior of employees and for poor judgment and oversight by leadership. This might have been avoided if they had better management in place. Ultimately this price is paid not by Oxfam staff and board, but the women, children, and men in Haiti and other countries who will receive less in aid to break the cycles of poverty.

Several other NGOs have since also been named, but because Oxfam was revealed first, they still bear the brunt of the anger.

And let’s be crystal clear that the real victims in this whole tragedy are the women who trusted these charities and were abused.

The outrage is reasonable, but all bad actors in the sector need to be held equally accountable, not just Oxfam. Perhaps, as time goes on, we can regard Oxfam, not through the lens of being one of a few that tolerated very real malefactors, but as the unfortunate organization that served as the wake-up call for the rest of us, and that this can become the start of a charity sector developing systems that make sure we are always putting the interest of the people we serve first. Good intentions are not enough.

In 2001, Jim Hilborn launched Canadian FundRaiser eNEWS, a fully-formatted and trackable eLetter version of Canadian FundRaiser that, within less than one year of its launch, was the largest-circulation information service in the Canadian development and nonprofit management sector. In 2007, Jim launched Civil Sector Press, Canada’s first book publishing company focusing entirely on the nonprofit and charity sector. Jim is the only non-fundraiser to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from AFP Toronto.

Professor Ken Wyman has more than 35 years’ experience helping grassroots groups grow and raising millions of dollars. He has written or contributed to eight books on fundraising, most recently Excellence in Fundraising in Canada, and is a frequent media commentator. He won the first ever award as Fund Raising Executive of the Year from the AFP Toronto Chapter. Ken is a consultant and a professor in the graduate Fundraising Management program at Humber College.

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