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Official warning for Oxfam following Charity Commission investigation

Official warning for Oxfam following Charity Commission investigation

The has issued with an Official Warning and a regulatory Direction under Section 84 of the Charities Act 2011, following its investigation into the charity.

The Commission has today published the results of its investigation into Oxfam in a critical report, finding that aspects of the charity’s past record on safeguarding amount to mismanagement. The investigation found that it repeatedly fell below standards expected, had a culture of tolerating poor behaviour, and failed to meet promises made on safeguarding.

It also finds that it failed to heed warnings, including from its own staff, that its culture and response around keeping people safe was inadequate, and made commitments to safeguarding that were not matched by its actions.

The report takes into account over 7,000 items of evidence and examines the charity’s handling of events in Haiti, as well as its more recent record on protecting people, including its beneficiaries, volunteers and staff, from harm.

Haiti misconduct allegations

The regulator finds that the then executive of Oxfam GB mishandled aspects of its response to allegations of misconduct in Haiti in 2011.

Overall, the Commission concludes that there had been a “culture of poor behaviour” and poor accountability among staff in Haiti at the time, of which individuals took advantage.

The Commission also finds that the charity’s reports to donors and the Commission itself were “not as full and frank about the nature and seriousness of the incidents and problems in Haiti as they should have been”. The inquiry’s view is that Oxfam GB’s approach to disclosure and reporting was marked, at times, by a desire to protect the charity’s reputation and donor relationships.

Specifically, the inquiry found that the charity:

  • did not adequately follow-up whether victims of sexual misconduct in Haiti were minors
  • did not report allegations of child abuse by Oxfam GB staff in Haiti, failing to take the risks to alleged victims seriously enough
  • dealt with staff members implicated in sexual misconduct in Haiti inconsistently, notably by appearing to treat senior staff more leniently than junior staff
  • missed opportunities to identify and tackle early warnings before the events in Haiti in 2011

Oxfam’s wider approach to safeguarding

The investigation also examined Oxfam GB’s wider approach to safeguarding, both historically and more recently, with the report concluding that the charity’s own commitments and promises in the past were not always matched by its actions.

It attributes this to its leadership, up to 2018, which it says, applyed insufficient resources to keeping people safe from harm, and concludes that this and other systemic weaknesses amount to mismanagement in the administration of charity.

The inquiry also finds the charity missed opportunities to address issues raised by its own safeguarding staff, and exposed the charity to undue risk.

Specifically, the inquiry finds that:

  • resourcing and capability around safeguarding at the charity between 2015 to 2017 did not match the risks associated with the charity’s global reach and the nature of its work
  • the charity’s approach to safeguarding case work was at times unstructured and a lack of adequate assurance and oversight mechanisms meant trustees were unable to identify serious failures in case handling, including poor record keeping, failings of which the inquiry is “extremely critical”
  • weaknesses in the charity’s HR practices prior to 2018, particularly concerning problems around vetting and referencing and management oversight, led to a ‘culture of tolerance of poor behaviour’
  • as late as 2017, promises that the resources for safeguarding would be increased were not delivered

Helen Stephenson, Chief Executive of the Charity Commission, said the regulator’s findings demonstrate that the incidents in Haiti were symptoms of a wider problem:

“What went wrong in Haiti did not happen in isolation. Our inquiry demonstrates that, over a period of years, Oxfam’s internal culture tolerated poor behaviour, and at times lost sight of the values it stands for.

“The charity’s leadership may have been well-intentioned. But our report demonstrates that good intentions have limited value when they are not matched with resources, robust systems and processes that are implemented on the ground, and more importantly, an organisational culture that prioritises keeping people safe.

“I would like to thank the whistleblowers in this case, who took the courageous decision to come to us with their concerns. Their contribution has made, and will continue to make, an important difference.”

Regulatory Direction under Section 84 of the Charities Act 2011

This order directs Oxfam’s trustees to take specified actions including to submit an action plan for the Commission’s approval by 30 June 2019, which will set out the steps by which it will implement the outstanding actions and recommendations required by the Commission.

Oxfam’s response

In response to the report, Oxfam issued the following statement from Alison Talbot, Partner & Head of National Charities, Winckworth Sherwood, on behalf of former Oxfam GB trustees and senior executives:

“The Charity Commission report has highlighted the seriousness and complexity of safeguarding issues facing Oxfam and other charities working in the aid sector. We hope that its findings will contribute to ongoing improvements in how Oxfam and the sector carry out their vital work to prevent abuse of staff, members of communities and beneficiaries.

“As trustees and senior executives, those of us then in office were appalled when in 2011 we found out about the behaviour of some of Oxfam’s staff posted toHaiti. At the time, Oxfam was delivering water to half a million people in Haiti. These members of staff let Oxfam, and our beneficiaries, down badly. We apologise to all those affected.

“In 2011, we acted immediately to ensure all of the allegations were urgently investigated by sending out an investigation team. The individuals suspected of breaching Oxfam’s code of conduct were suspended. Four employees were subsequently dismissed once the investigation was concluded, and this was publicised by Oxfam at the time.

“We recognise that the Charity Commission has identified weaknesses in the handling of the events in Haiti. We implemented a detailed action plan to address the wider issues identified by the investigation both in Haiti, and across our international programmes. As trustees and senior executives at the time, we were determined to tackle sexual exploitation and abuse, and we established a number of programmes and initiatives to prevent and identify safeguarding issues.

“Safeguarding is and remains a huge issue for all charities, and the Commission has pointed out the need for greater resource, more rigorous investigatory procedures, and senior oversight and accountability. We recognise today that our efforts in 2011 and subsequently were insufficient, especially in the light of all of the information available to the Charity Commission in the course of this statutory inquiry.

“Safeguarding is fundamental to what Oxfam and other humanitarian agencies have to do. Those caught up in humanitarian disasters must the agencies which are there to help them, upon whom their lives may depend. They should be kept safe from all and any abuses.”

 

Melanie May is a journalist and copywriter specialising in writing both for and about the charity and marketing services sectors since 2001. She can be reached via www.thepurplepim.com.

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