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Inquiry finds Save the Children UK mismanaged workplace harassment complaints

Save the Children UK says it has accepted in full the findings of the Charity Commission report published today (5 March) on its response to complaints against two former senior executives.
The Commission announced its statutory inquiry in 2018 into Save the Children UK’s response to complaints made against former CEO Justin Forsyth in 2012 and 2015, and against Brendan Cox, a former policy and advocacy director in 2015.
The Commission found that that there were weaknesses in the charity’s workplace culture, and that Save the Children UK let down the complainants, its staff and the wider public, saying:

“The charity’s handling of the complaints was so poor in certain respects that it amounted to mismanagement. These allegations, and the way in which the charity responded, had a corrosive impact on its internal culture.”

The failings identified by the Commission include:


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The inquiry states that ‘the allegations were not brushed under the carpet’ but notes that trust in the processes for handling complaints was ‘undermined by a failure to fully implement them properly and consistently’. The complaints against Brendan Cox were formally investigated in a manner the Commission describes as prompt and responsible. But he resigned before a disciplinary hearing could be held.
The full inquiry can be read here.
Kevin Watkins, who became CEO in 2016, having previously served on the Board, said:

“I unreservedly apologise to the women affected by the behaviour of these two senior executives. The harm they suffered was compounded by a failure to respond appropriately to complaints and then by our defensive handling of media inquiries about the cases.
“Our staff are passionate about our work for children. They have a right to expect the highest standards of support and protection. I’m determined to work with them to build an organisational culture that reflects our values.”

Charles Steel, the interim chair, added:

“The trustees and leadership fully accept these findings and we are profoundly sorry that we let the women and our organisation down. The inquiry makes clear that every part of our organisation must be held to account for our duty of care to staff and for living up to our values. While we are making progress in improving our culture, we have more work to do, and this will continue to be a critical priority for our organisation.
“We must repay the trust of our staff and supporters. Only with that trust can we fulfil our mission to help the children who need us most.”

However, the inquiry also recognised Save the Children UK’s ‘positive and responsible attitude towards admitting past mistakes’ and noted ‘significant progress’ made since 2015, particularly since the charity commissioned an independent review of office culture in 2018. The review, carried out by Dr Suzanne Shale, found that the charity had become more respectful and supportive but made a series of recommendations for further action.
In its response, the charity states that in 2019, it appointed a full-time team and senior director to lead changes to the charity’s culture, and strengthened reporting and whistleblowing policies, and committed itself to independently investigating any future allegations against executives or trustees.
The charity also says it has brought in new HR leadership and safeguarding expertise, and improved board diversity. A second review by Dr Shale last December also found Save the Children UK to be ‘open, honest and humble about the charity’s imperfections and limitations, whilst still pursuing high ambitions to learn and improve’. It noted the charity had accomplished many of its initial goals in a drive to change the working culture of the organisation and was effectively involving staff in the changes, but needed to ensure it sustained progress.
Commenting on the release of the inquiry’s findings, Helen Stephenson, Chief Executive of the Charity Commission, said:

“Charities should be distinct from other types of organisations in their attitude and behaviour, in their motivations and methods. The public rightly expect that; so do the majority of people working in charities, who deserve a workplace culture that is healthy, supportive, and safe.
“Creating that culture is not just about putting the right systems and processes in place; it also requires leaders who model the highest standards of behaviour and conduct, and who are held to account properly and consistently when they fall short.
“This responsibility is especially pronounced in large, household name charities: their leaders are powerful, and highly respected. The impact of failures in leadership in such charities can also have implications for public trust and confidence beyond the charity itself. So they must use that power responsibly, and in a way that reflects legitimate expectations of charity.
“Save the Children UK let complainants and the public down. It must work hard now to rebuild its reputation.”

Stephanie Draper, CEO for Bond, the UK network for NGOs, added:

“Bullying, harassment and abuse have no place in the NGO sector and fundamentally betray our basic values.
“… It isn’t enough to meet minimum compliance standards, organisations need to live and breathe a safeguarding culture and this is where transparency and leadership are key. Leaders are in positions of power in their organisations, so they have a responsibility to establish and maintain an organisational culture that is conducive to safeguarding best practice.”