Consulting on a code of ethics for the charity sector

Dame Mary Marsh is chair of trustees at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and a non-executive director of HSBC bank plc. She is former chief executive of the NSPCC, as well as founder and former chief executive of the Clore Social Leadership Programme.

Today, NCVO is launching a consultation on a draft code of ethics for the charity sector. I was very pleased to be asked to lead a working group from across the sector in England and Wales to develop this.

No one who has read about the revelations this year, not only about safeguarding but also wider behaviour at work within the sector, could fail to be shocked. Rightly, the public hold charities to an even higher standard than other organisations. It is clear that in a number of cases, as recently reported, these high standards were not met. These cases affected both the people the charities were there to help, and the people working within those charities.

What is also clear is that the sector takes this very seriously and wants to put things right. Charities, sector bodies, regulators and government are now working together to strengthen safeguarding, improve workplace practices and minimise the possibility of similar incidents happening again.

Part of the solution will be to strengthen existing policies and procedures, and ensuring the right reporting mechanisms are in place. But this will not be enough without the right culture and behaviours being embedded throughout all charities. That is why a code of ethics is such an important initiative.

Equally important is how leaders within each charity will champion these ethical principles and their organisational values – and a new report from Acevo on leading safer cultures should help achieve that.

A new draft code of ethics

Many charities, especially those working with children and people in vulnerable circumstances, already have their own codes of conduct. But these are understandably specific to their particular circumstances and areas of work.

Although charities face different challenges depending on how large they are, the work they do and where they operate – we believe there are some values and principles that are relevant to everyone.

What we have set out to do with this code of ethics is to develop an overarching set of ethical principles that could act as a framework for all charities.

We want the code of ethics to help every organisation: whether they work in social care, international development, health, arts or anywhere else. Every charity should be able to use the code to review their own policies and practice – and then decide what needs to change, based on their particular work and specific values.

Endorsement and use of the code will be voluntary, but we hope as many organisations as possible will sign up to it and put it into practice – both as a helpful tool in its own right and as a clear signal that charities want to deal with problems where they arise.

Conduct and safeguarding

A lot of the focus over the past months has been on safeguarding issues, and the code sets out principles that will help address safeguarding concerns. But the code is much wider and is aimed at ensuring that charities are a safe place for anyone who comes into contact with their work, whether they are a volunteer, a beneficiary, or a member of staff.

The code therefore covers:

  • safeguarding of children and young people and of adults at risk
  • conduct within charities
  • safe employment practices
  • dignity in the workplace
  • treating all individuals with respect.

Listening to charities

As a first step in drafting the code, we drew on many of different examples of codes of ethics and codes of conduct in various sectors and organisations. I also chaired a roundtable with a group of charities ranging in size, area of operation and type of activity. That was an invaluable opportunity to hear all kinds of different perspectives, but of course we still need to consult as widely as possible. So today we are launching an open consultation.

The draft code has also been shared with relevant government departments and regulators, who are supportive of this initiative.

We want to do everything we can to make sure the final code is based on the views of as many different charities as possible. So please do read the draft code, share it among your immediate colleagues, including volunteers, beneficiary groups, some of your key donors and widely across the sector. Do let us know what you think. We’re consulting for 12 weeks, up until 26 September. We look forward to hearing from you.

We hope the final code will both help charities and show our commitment to ethical principles and ethical conduct in everything we do.

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