The Charity Commission’s report on Oxfam: Lessons for trustees and what you can do

It has been an uncomfortable start of the week for those of us who work and volunteer in charities, and for charity supporters more generally.

First, In Plain Sight a report by ACEVO and the Centre for Mental Health highlighted many shocking examples of bullying and harassment happening in our sector. While the charity sector is not immune to instances of abusive behaviour, it’s clear that our approach to tackling them must be of the highest standard.

This was followed by the publication yesterday of the Charity Commission’s statutory inquiry report into Oxfam (PDF, 2.5MB), following a lengthy investigation prompted by last year’s Times revelations. The Commission’s report focuses on Oxfam’s handling of the situation at the time, and more widely on the organisation’s management and policies and practices with regard to safeguarding.

As is now its standard practice, the Commission also draws out wider lessons for all trustees to consider – and these are what I want to reflect further on.

Why does it matter?

Trustees’ duty to ensure their charity is a safe place (for staff, volunteers, and beneficiaries) can be seen as the common thread that runs through most of charity trustees’ essential legal duties:

  • Comply with your charity’s governing document and the law: In many cases, it is required by law (for example if your charity works with children or vulnerable adults, and therefore has safeguarding responsibilities; and every charity has to comply with health and safety regulations, which apply equally to mental wellbeing as they do to physical health).
  • Act with reasonable care and skill: Safeguarding and ensuring your charity is a safe place is also part of your general duty of care.
  • Act in your charity’s best interests: Your charity exists to serve its beneficiaries. And people can only thrive when they operate in a respectful and tolerant environment. So it is in the best interests of your charity to treat staff, volunteers and beneficiaries with respect dignity and fairness.
  • Ensure your charity is accountable: It is an aspect of your charity’s accountability to demonstrate you are taking responsibility for your actions and putting your staff’s, volunteers’ and beneficiaries’ interests first.

But we know that when these things happen, trustees and leaders in charities want to know what it means for their charity, what they need to do, and – more than anything else – what resources are available to help them.

The Charity Governance Code

Although the Charity Governance Code does not have an explicit mention of safeguarding, it is not silent on the types of practice which would prevent safeguarding issues.

In particular the following key principles provide the framework within which trustees should consider their safeguarding responsibilities and wider duties to provide a safe place:

The Charity Ethical Principles

The Charity Ethical Principles also provide a useful framework for trustees to make decisions about safeguarding and help them build a safe culture within their charity.

In particular, the right to be safe makes it clear that:

  • Every person who volunteers with works for or comes into contact with a charity should be treated with dignity and respect, and feel that they are in a safe and supportive environment.
  • All charities have a responsibility to create an inclusive culture that does not tolerate inappropriate, discriminatory, offensive or harmful behaviour towards any person who works for, volunteers with, or comes into contact with the charity.
  • Charities should also be places where people’s wellbeing and mental health are valued and promoted so that anyone working in the charity or coming into contact with the charity is encouraged to value and invest in their own health and wellbeing.

Guide for UK NGO boards

Bond’s cross-sector safeguarding group has just published a new guide for charities on good governance for safeguarding (PDF, 450KB).

The guide provides practical advice for trustees of UK-based NGOs suggesting ways in which they can take the lead on safeguarding. Although it focuses on the oversight and governance role of UK NGOs’ boards of trustees, it will undoubtedly be of benefit to all charities.

A lesson for all of us

Safeguarding has been at the front of all our minds, particularly trustees, for some time. This is another moment for us to think about what more can be done, how we can improve and strengthen our practices.

And once again the key lesson for all of us is that, 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.


More support

Information and guidance

NCVO face-to-face training


NCVO’s Trusted Supplier SAFEcic can also provide bespoke training to organisations with a 25% discount for NCVO members. SAFEcic offers online courses on:

  • child safeguarding
  • leading on child safeguarding for managers
  • adult safeguarding
  • safeguarding adults with dementia
  • leading on adult safeguarding for managers.

SAFEcic also offers safeguarding audits and pre-inspection audit services for a wide range of organisations such as those in leisure, health and education. These aim to raise standards and also assist managers in benchmarking the safeguarding arrangements in their organisation.

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Avatar photo Elizabeth was head of policy and public services at NCVO until 2020.

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