Everyone has the right to feel safe

Everyone has the right to feel safe and people can only thrive when they operate in a respectful and tolerant environment.

Anyone who comes into contact with a charity – whether as a staff member, a service user or volunteer – should be able to be confident that they will be treated with respect, dignity and fairness.

Today’s report on bullying by Acevo and the Centre for Mental Health shows that there are times when organisations have let their staff or volunteers down in this regard. No one imagined that the voluntary sector was immune to these types of issues – abusive conduct of this kind can sadly be found in all walks of life – but our approach to tackling them must be of the highest standard.

Speaking out

We owe a debt to those who have spoken about their experiences as part of Acevo’s work, and we must listen carefully to what they are saying. I hope this report, coming from the network for chief executives, will give confidence that these issues will be taken seriously. I welcome its recommendation that sector leaders reflect on bullying and workplace culture. NCVO will support them to do this so that collectively we send a message that this behaviour is unacceptable and has serious consequences.


So much of preventing bullying comes down to creating the right culture. A culture that nurtures respect, values opinions, celebrates difference and promotes positive relationships. As well as simply being the right thing to do, being good, ethical organisations is a crucial part of our legitimacy and authority. And of course, people who work or volunteer for us can only thrive in what they do when they’re operating in a respectful and tolerant environment. It’s particularly important for trustees and senior managers to understand the influence they have on culture through what they say and what they do.

I know many of you have been actively working for some time to create positive cultures and ones in which concerns can be raised. Much of this involves looking past the policies and procedures (which of course, are necessary) to create initiatives that send a clear message about the organisation’s culture. Positive examples among NCVO members include:

  • practical measures, such as an external ethics hotline which can be used by staff and volunteers to raise concerns when they do not feel able to use existing procedures
  • anonymous surveys and independently facilitated listening sessions to make it easier for staff to speak out
  • holistic approaches, such as a stated ambition to prioritise wellbeing among staff and to provide support to achieve it.

How NCVO can help

Earlier this year, we developed the Charity Ethical Principles, which reflect the values and behaviours to which we believe all charities can aspire and commit to. One of the principles, developed in consultation with the voluntary sector, is the right to be safe, which embodies charities’ commitment to ensuring the physical and mental wellbeing of their staff, volunteers and beneficiaries. The principle is clear that dignity, respect and an open and inclusive culture are fundamental values for every charity. I would strongly encourage all organisations to review the principles, to commit to them, and use them as a tool to help guide discussions on this and other topics.

We are also currently leading a partnership of organisations that have come together to produce guidance and support to help charities improve their safeguarding practices. Our aim is not only to strengthen safeguarding across the sector, but also to drive culture and behaviour change that will mean charities can ensure they are creating safe and supportive environments.

Do good, be good

As the report recognises, we have no reason to suspect that rates of bullying and harassment in the charity sector are higher that any others. But we cannot, as a sector dedicated to doing good, hold a light up to other parts of society if we haven’t demonstrated the courage to face the dynamics of our own work and cultures. And a sector that includes outstanding work to combat bullying in other parts of society cannot let itself be characterised by such behaviour.

In order to continue to ‘do good’ and create positive change in the world, we must also ‘be good’ and operate at the highest ethical standards – this means all those who lead organisations or teams finding the focus needed to make sure that bullying has no place in our sector.


More support

The following may be of assistance to those looking to review their own approaches:

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Avatar photo Sir Stuart Etherington was chief executive of NCVO from 1994 to 2019.

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