June 11, 2019

Being a charity is not just about who you are, but what you do

The misconduct issues which arose at Oxfam, and indeed at a significant number of other charities, have been discussed exhaustively in the media over the last few years. However, the Commission’s report helpfully draws attention to the essential duties and responsibilities of a charity’s management team and of its trustees both to their own charity and to the third sector generally.

A charity’s reputation is probably its most important asset. Recent scandals across the sector have highlighted the detrimental effect that reputational damage can have to a charity’s ability to fundraise and even to operate. However, the report emphasizes the fact that a charity’s desire to protect its reputation and donor relationships cannot take precedence over its responsibility to safeguard its staff and the users of its services.

The report found that Oxfam failed to heed warnings that its culture and response around keeping people safe was inadequate, and made commitments to safeguarding that were not matched by its actions. To quote directly from it:

          “No charity is so large, nor is its mission so important that it can afford to put its own reputation ahead of the dignity and wellbeing of those it exists to protect. But the implications of this inquiry are not confined to the failings of a single, big charity, because no charity is too small to bear its own share of responsibility for upholding the wider good name of charity….. Ultimately being a charity is more than just about what you do, it is also about the way in which you do it. The Charity Commission is determined to reassure the public that it understands this fundamental point and will work with the sector it regulates to demonstrate that fact in the months and years ahead.”

It is clear from the report that the Commission considers that failure to address issues raised by staff or others can expose a charity to undue risk which can amount to mismanagement in the administration of the charity. Trustees can be exposed to personal liabilities arising out of such mismanagement. For charities generally, the issue of most interest may well be that the report‘s conclusions seem to indicate that the Commission’s focus going forward is likely to be as much on a charity’s internal culture as on its practical operations.


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