Will Charities Face a Day of Reckoning?

I

A story about widespread sexual misconduct broke in the U.K. last week. This time it involved Oxfam, one of the world’s most respected international aid charities.

According to The Guardian, the Charities Commission, the U.K. government’s charity watch dog, has asked for “an urgent clarification from Oxfam after allegations that the charity covered up an inquiry into whether its staff used sex workers in Haiti during the 2011 post-earthquake relief effort.”

The allegations included sexual misconduct, bullying, harassment and the intimidation of staff. Three men resigned and four were fired as a result of the investigation. It is unclear whether the men were part of the international or local staff.

The Charities Commission also said it had received a report from Oxfam about the ongoing internal investigation in August 2011 but not all the details were included.

“Our approach to this matter would have been different” if the full details of the sexual misconduct been disclosed to them at the time, the Charities Commission now says. As noted above, it has written to the charity “as a matter of urgency” to request further information.

Following the current pattern of sexual misconduct disclosures, after this Oxfam Haiti scandal broke, it was also reported that other international development organizations—Save the Children and Christian Aid—have dealt with more than 120 allegations of sexual misconduct in the past year. The British Red Cross also reported a “small number,” but didn’t have the exact figures. The numbers were collated by the charities themselves.

Penny Mordaunt, international development secretary for Theresa May’s conservative government, said she felt Oxfam had failed in its moral leadership. Mordaunt works in a government that has not always been kind to the notion of international aid.

Whatever the details, the situation is beyond appalling and people who abuse their power through sexual misconduct, bullying or intimidation—and those who enable it—need to have their comeuppance.

The long shadow of allegations like these is cast on all charities, especially international development charities. If you work in charity, you can understand the feeling of wanting to scream Not me! while pulling up the drawbridge and closing the drapes tight.

II

It is not surprising that the release of the 2011 allegations and Oxfam’s report of sexual abuse should happen now, seven years later.

We don’t know if someone from Oxfam, the Charities Commission or another person familiar with the situation initially disclosed the Oxfam report and associated details. Or maybe The Times had the information for a while but only now decided to publish it,

What we do know is that this is a time of reckoning in terms of sexual misconduct.

The #MeToo movement is rocking the entertainment, political and business worlds with women finally speaking out about sexual violence perpetuated against them.

And, thankfully, part of our current discourse is about how sexual misconduct is only one signpost on a continuum of how (mostly) men with power can, and often will, use it to exert personal control.

Those who abuse power come from all walks of life, all shapes and sizes.

They might come in the form of a manager in a fast food restaurant who forces himself on a worker because that worker needs the job to survive and will never tell.

It could be the aid worker who presses his advantage because he has access to food the other person doesn’t.

It might be a charity CEO or donor, someone used to getting precisely what he wants, and has never faced the consequences of crossing the line to get it.

It was only a matter of time before charities came face-to-face with the notion that the sector is made up of regular people who share the same weakness and capacity for malevolence as the rest of humankind.

III

I confess to not being entirely surprised by the allegations. I’ve been waiting for charities to join the #MeToo list with no small amount of trepidation.

And that the news of widespread sexual misconduct in the charity sector should be breaking in the U.K. makes sense to me.

The bloom fell off the charity rose in the U.K. in 2016 when the country was riveted by the story of a 92-year-old woman named Olive Cooke who committed suicide by throwing herself off a suspension bridge at Clifton. Some attributed her depression to receiving more than 3,000 direct mail pieces a year, mail she received because she gave to charity through the mail and her name appeared on scores of lists.

People were appalled by the vision of charities driving an elderly woman to her death because they wouldn’t leave her alone.

And the storm of their disgust has not let up.

Since 2016, U.K. media have ripped down the green curtain of charity goodwill and are trying to describe what they see behind it.

They look at charities as an untapped goldmine of newsworthy transgressions because the activities of charities have never been held up to the light in the same way business, politics and other public ventures have. This, despite the huge amounts of money and life-changing mandates that run through the charity sector.

With headlines such as the following, the resulting media attention has been bruising:

  • “Charities in crisis over cold call menace.”
  • “Charities abused as vehicles for terrorism.”
  • “Three charities criticized in BBC documentary for data swapping.”

Menace. Terrorism. Data swapping. For charity workers in the U.K., it’s getting so you hardly want to open a newspaper in the morning.

IV

But if we look back at the year 2011, the year when the report of staff misconduct was submitted by Oxfam to the Charities Commission, there was another, much larger story  about charity work being told in another part of the world. Veteran journalist, Alex Perry, wrote a book about it called The Rift.

Before the book came out, Perry described how the complicity of western aid agencies in the U.S. decision not to let food aid into Somalia led to a manmade famine. The U.S. didn’t want aid going to the parts of the country controlled by the terrorist group, al-Shabab. And western aid agencies fell in line behind the U.S.

Even though charities continued to fundraise for the famine, there was next to no food aid getting to the people who were dying from starvation. After the U.S. realized the degree of harm its decision had caused, it lifted the ban. But it was too late. More than 250,000 men, women and children died of starvation.

And no one was ever held to account.

Perry writes:

“The living and the dead soon found themselves competing for space. Mothers would return to the graves of children they had buried the day before to find a camp had materialised on the same spot over night. By the end of the catastrophe, one in 10 of the children in southern Somalia aged five and under was dead.

“Maybe you remember it? Perhaps you gave money to the aid agencies who blanketed newspaper front pages and billboards in London with pictures of starving Somalis? The campaign was one of the biggest of the last decade, raising £1.2bn in months, about £400 for each of the three million Somalis in need. That figure, however, poses a question. With all that money, how did 258,000 people still die? The answers are an excruciating testament to how badly we in the west can get Africa wrong.”

And when, as I wrote in my 2017 book, Cap in Hand: How Charities Are Failing the People of Canada and the World, Perry published a 10-page account of the famine in Time magazine, he thought he would be barraged with response and righteous indignation from all the parties involved. After all, this was Time magazine, the largest circulation magazine on the planet.

Instead, there was nothing. Readers and opinion influencers didn’t relate to it somehow. Even with one quarter of a million Somali men, women and children dead, it hardly ruffled a feather in the west, not unlike the report Oxfam sent off to the Charities Commission in 2011.

In the context of enabling poor decision making and cries of if we hand only known, forgive me if the protestations from the Crown’s minister, Ms Penny Mordaunt, and the denizens of the Charities Commission fall flat to these ears.

V

The outrage against the international aid charities for the pattern of sexual misconduct allegations is absolutely justified. It is particularly devastating because Oxfam has made a global commitment to improving the lives of women, in particular.

Oxfam—and other international aid charities around the world–are scrambling to respond.

But to think we can peer into the charity looking glass and see bad things as happening to “others” is the single most unhelpful thing we can do.

For one thing, people in the charitable sector change jobs frequently. Fundraisers change jobs on an average of 18 months. The boundary of one individual charity is hardly a boundary at all.

For another thing, the charitable sector serves vulnerable people. And vulnerable people are vulnerable because they are vulnerable.

Whether the situation involves sexual misconduct, another sort of abuse of power or an abandonment of mission, charities, for self-preservation if nothing else, must devote themselves to transparency and accountability.

Too many charities feel comfortable wearing a cloak of righteous. Some talk about their jobs as a way to “give back,” that somehow charity work, in and of itself, has a religiosity to it, a sacredness that makes any critic look churlish.

That kind of spin—and believe me as someone who knows, it is spin— on a sector that took in revenue of $246 billion in Canada in 2014 alone won’t work much longer.  The amount of money is too big and there are lots of people inside the sector who are frustrated by what they see as a failure of progress and a failure of leadership.

A day of reckoning is well on its way for charities.

When the reckoning comes it will be swift and sure. Perhaps it has, in some ways, already started. The developments in the U.K. are certainly worrying.

When the day comes, the argument that will save charities is not about fundraising costs. It is the one that realistically describes a huge sector with humankind as its mission.

VI

I’ve worked with scores of charities in the past thirty years. Quite a bit of that work has been fundraising. I’ve seen charities take up issues from violence against women to poverty to women’s equality. I know, from bearing witness, that charities do terrific work. Most of my close friends are relationships that have been forged from working together towards similar goals.

I’ve also seen a lot of other things in that time as well. But it isn’t the war stories of the past I want to talk about. It is the future of charities that worries me.

The hunkering down around fundraising messages and fundraising priorities make me wonder if we aren’t walking down the wrong road.

Having donors decide charity priorities, by way of funding what interests them privately, no matter if prevention will save more lives than seeking an unlikely cure is, by logic, not the most impactful decision.

The naming of publicly funded institutions after big donors is unseemly. Their donation represents only a small part of what Canadian citizens contribute to running that hospital or institution day-after-day, year-after-year, citizens who take pride in their health care and education systems.

VII

What can I do?  I’m often asked. The issues seem so huge.

The issues of sexual misconduct—the reason why the charitable sector might, at least temporarily, be in what’s called the pre-contemplative stage of change—is a critically important issue, and one that resonates deeply with most women.

It is one of a number of the sector wide issues needing attention. There is so much work to be done, but first we must decide to begin to do it.

From the perspective of sexual misconduct:

  • If your organization is dealing with issues of sexual or other misconduct, organize yourself to effectively deal with it. I’ve prepared a post to talk about the practicalities of that. You can click here to read it.
  • For those observing the sexual misconduct scandal from a distance, the temptation must be resisted to say thank heavens that’s someone else’s house, not mine. Charities are made up of humans. Humans are imperfect and, sometimes, worse.
  • If you are in a leadership position and someone comes to you with a report, you owe the victim, your employees, your volunteers and your cause an efficient investigation. Women are here to be believed. Clients are here to be believed.

From a general perspective:

  • Focus on the vulnerability of who you serve and make what’s in their best interest the basis for all your decisions.
  • Develop strategic plans that are structurally based on the wellbeing of the people you exist to serve.
  • Measure the success of your organization on how much closer you’ve gotten to the fulfillment of your mission.
  • Plan for how to explain your decisions to all your stakeholders, from funders to beneficiaries. There should be congruity in that communication.

For many hundreds of years, churches were seen as places that were above reproach. We now know the extent of the child sexual abuse—and the number of devastated lives—hidden behind those holy doors.

Don’t let charity be another bastion that continues to want to silence critique, to make disagreement unwelcome. People have been, and are being, hurt by the actions of charities. Many charities are not acting in the best interest of the people they serve.

Not to believe this and try to deal with it is a futile attempt at preventing the future from happening.

I don’t say this as a charity evaluator who tries to rate charities or play gotcha with charities around fundraising expenses or as someone who even cares that much about CEO salaries. I say it as someone who cares about people who work with charities and cares very much about the people they purport to serve.

The Washington Post has as its motto, quite appropriate given the times, Democracy Dies in Darkness.

Don’t let the darkness, that lack of transparency, be the reason people turn away from charities.

Note:  I’m looking forward to talking about this and other issues at the International Conference of the Association of Fundraising Professionals in New Orleans on April 16th  and 17th where I’ve been invited to, alongside my friend, Denny Young, be part of a panel led by Daryl Upsall, “Does the public get the non-profits that it deserves? What makes us so open to charity haters and what are we going to do about it?” It’s part of the Rebels, Renegades and Pioneers track organized by Daryl and others.

 

Gail Picco is an award-winning charity strategist and thought-leader widely recognized as one of Canada’s foremost experts on how to carve a path through the increasingly complex dynamics of the charitable sector. Civil Sector Press recently published her latest book, Cap in Hand: How Charities are Failing the People of Canada and the World. She works as a Principal with The Osborne Group in Toronto and is Chair of the Regent Park Film Festival.

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