Charities: keeping people safe

Charities are once again front page news

Following reports at the beginning of the year about safeguarding problems at Oxfam and Save the Children UK, charities are again front page news today. Ahead of its second ‘safeguarding summit’ tomorrow, the Department for International Development has announced its intention to develop a global register of suspected sexual predators. And the Charity Commission has released a report from its safeguarding taskforce, headlined by their concern that not enough charities are reporting serious incidents, enough of the time.

These stories are likely to continue over the coming days. If you work for a charity and are asked about the story, this might help you frame your response.

Newspaper headlines, 17th October 2018

Safeguarding is mission critical…

As we commented when The Times investigation first surfaced concerns, getting safeguarding right is mission critical. It is a matter for all charities, from the largest international development agency to the smallest community group. The mission of many organisations means that they work with people potentially in vulnerable situations – and this can make them attractive to those who seek to do wrong. Concerns about the conduct of senior staff in some charities, have shown us that charity staff also find themselves in vulnerable situations. A number of women who work as fundraisers will attest to similar concerns in relation to donors.

There is no room for complacency in trying to get our approach to safeguarding right. And not just safeguarding: this is also about ensuring that anyone working or volunteering for a charity is safe. Getting it right is a matter of changing culture, leadership, policy and practice. As NCVO members have told us, getting safeguarding right is not the same as implementing criminal records checks.

…but charities are still confused about what to report

The regulatory regime for reporting serious incidents, including safeguarding, is the basis for today’s report from the Charity Commission, including the headline numbers. The report rightly highlights that this is not yet working without problems.

At NCVO, we hear concerns on a regular basis that charities are unclear as to what constitutes a serious incident. While the Commission has published new guidance on what sort of wrongdoing can be reported, and how to make a complaint about a charity, its guidance on serious incident reporting continues to have some ambiguity.

The definition of a ‘serious incident’ is very wide. This leaves charity trustees to make a judgement call as to whether an incident is sufficiently serious to warrant reporting – and often the seriousness of an incident is in the eye of the beholder.

We would be interested to hear about your experience of the serious incident reporting framework so that we can work with the Commission to shape the development of the guidance.

We need to be clearer with the public about the nature of the problem

It’s become clear that our sector needs to strengthen its safeguarding, and needs to do more to make sure our organisations are a safe place. But in addressing this, and making trustees in particular aware and ready to take action, we need to be careful to present the problem accurately.

In its review of 5,000 serious incident reports related to safeguarding over several years, the Commission said that charities had generally handled the incident appropriately. Out of 2,000 assessed as potentially criminal behaviour, in all but one case the allegations had been reported to the police. They did not identify a single case giving rise to serious concerns requiring further action. We should find this reassuring, as should the Commission’s message that an increase in reporting is a positive sign that safeguarding is being taken seriously. However, this message has been obliterated in some today’s reporting. We all have a role in explaining some complex trends and indicators clearly.

How we’re measuring

The Commission has said that 1% of registered charities reporting a serious safeguarding incidents is not enough. If the Commission have a view of what the ‘right’ number of safeguarding reports is, they haven’t shared it. Should 5% of charities have made a report? 10%? I can’t help but feel the Commission would also be expressing concern if that were the case. This is a finger-in-the-air judgement on the Charity Commission’s part, and given that, it needs to be careful in relying too heavily on it.

Charities are taking action

Throughout this difficult period, DfID and the Charity Commission have been keen to show that they are taking action to address the public’s concerns. We agree that reform is needed. The editorial in Today’s Times is right – charities must take the lead.

Times Leader: Charities Challenged

NCVO is working alongside a number of other organisations including The ScoutsBond and ACEVO to explore what tangible actions can be taken to strengthen safeguarding both domestically and internationally. This is not a world of quick wins. A review of the safeguarding legal landscape for charities highlights complexity above clarity. Addressing concerns such as references for former employees who may have left in difficult circumstances requires careful thought.

Some of the solutions will take time to put into place. A number of working groups involving charities, government and the regulator are currently meeting to work out the best next steps. In our view, and that of some NCVO members, the biggest risk facing these groups is the emergence of too many initiatives or solutions. We are working to get this right.

Finally, the Charity Commission report today highlights the importance of leadership and culture in getting safeguarding right. We agree – indeed, this is far more important than more law or regulation. Under the leadership of Dame Mary Marsh, we are developing a code of ethics for charities to provide them with a framework in which to design their own leadership response. This will be published before the end of the year. In the meantime, if you need advice or support in relation to safeguarding, you can find help at our safeguarding pages .

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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