Our sector now has its own set of ethical principles

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 I am pleased to announce that NCVO is publishing the final ‘charity ethical principles’ that have been developed in consultation with the sector through much of the last year.

I probably do not need to remind anyone why we set ourselves this task: last year’s serious cases about the unethical behaviours of some individuals connected to some of our most loved charities are still sadly front of all our minds.

But although the prompt came from such unfortunate events I do not want the principles to be seen only as a response to these negative stories, and other cases that emerged thereafter. The aim of the ethical principles is wider than strengthening safeguarding and employment practices: they apply to any conduct within charities, so every charity can ensure it is a ‘safe place’.

Most importantly, they are intended as an enabling document: they can help charities to recognise ethical issues and conflicts, and resolve them in their decision making. They can also provide a framework within which relevant policies and procedures are developed and reviewed.

How we developed the principles

Developed by NCVO with the support and engagement of the sector, including a wide range of charities, the charity ethical principles set out the current consensus over the shared values and ethics that should guide practice and decision making in all organisations.

The principles are the result of a collaborative process involving representatives from charities small and large across the sector in England and Wales. We have also shared our thinking with those in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Over the course of this work we have engaged with an advisory group that included a range of organisations, from small local charities with limited specific safeguarding knowledge through to large international development charities with expertise and experience in working with vulnerable beneficiaries.

We also held a consultation on the draft principles throughout the summer, asking for written feedback and comments. Finally, we organised a number of events so people could come and tell us face to face what they thought about the principles, and discuss how they might apply them to their particular circumstances.

What people told us

We received over 50 responses to our call for evidence, providing a wide range of comments and suggestions.

The majority of the comments were very positive and supportive about the principles. There was also some constructive feedback, particularly about:

  • potential overlap between the principles and the Charity Governance Code
  • how the principles will be enforced, and what might be the consequences of a charity deciding not to implement them.

A detailed summary of the responses received is available here.

Key changes we made

The most significant change we made was to stop referring to the principles as a ‘code of ethics’. This should ensure that the principles are understood as complementary to existing codes, particularly the Charity Governance Code and charities’ own codes of conduct.

Not referring to the principles as a ‘code’ also removes any implications about enforceability: although all charities are encouraged to reflect on the principles in their work and decision making, endorsement of the principles is voluntary.

The final document espouses four essential principles:

  • Beneficiaries first
  • Integrity
  • Openness
  • Right to be safe

How will the principles be used

The principles are not a set of rules that tell charities how they should act in all situations. Instead they provide an overarching framework that can guide decision making, good judgement and conduct.

Trustees in particular will find it helpful to make reference to the principles when faced with difficult decisions. The principles could also be useful to review the application of the Charity Governance Code, and of the specific code of conduct that any charity has.

But ultimately it is for everyone, from trustees to volunteers, to be mindful of the principles in their own conduct, individually and collectively.

It has been a privilege to lead this important piece of work, and I have been particularly encouraged by the positive response and constructive engagement from everyone. Thank you to all those who contributed so thoughtfully with this. The commitment to produce something that is both helpful to charities and reflects the fundamental values that all our organisations believe in has been the driver throughout this whole process. These principles demonstrate how much we all want to live our values in everything we do, and show the public that charities aim to be places where everyone meets the highest ethical standards.

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