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Oxfam and the implications for all charities

One of the most widely publicised charity scandals of recent years involved Oxfam and the conduct of some aid workers. In June the Charity Commission published the results of its inquiry into Oxfam which raises a number of issues that all charities can learn from.

The inquiry provides a timely reminder that trustees are collectively responsible for their charity and are ultimately accountable for everything done by that charity and its representatives. Trustees must understand the risks to their charity and ensure that they are properly managed, recognising the higher the risk, the greater the level of oversight required. Where a charity is large enough to employ a management team the trustees must be willing to hold the executives to account.

Protecting all those who come into contact with the charity and safeguarding responsibilities should be a governance priority for all charities, as a fundamental and integral part of operating as a charity for the public benefit. The complexity of a charity’s operations or the importance of the cause, cannot be used as an excuse for a failure to ensure that all reasonable steps to protect people are adopted.

To be effective, trustee boards must recognise that they need to lead by example, establishing the charity’s values, setting the standards, exhibiting behaviours that reflect those values, and by expecting anyone representing the charity to do the same. By implementing a culture that prioritises the need to keep people safe, charities can hope to deter and tackle unacceptable behaviour.

Such a culture recognises the need for transparency when things go wrong, and that there are consequences for anyone whose conduct falls short of what is expected of them, regardless of how senior they are. Handling incidents which cause harm to people properly, reporting them and ensuring that lessons are learned and acted upon will protect the reputation of the charity in the long term by providing assurance to stakeholders that the charity acts with integrity.

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