What can we learn from the investigation into Save the Children?

The Charity Commission has just published the results of its inquiry into Save the Children. The inquiry looks at allegations of harassment made against senior staff and how these had been handled. This is a moment for all charities to think about how we can improve and strengthen our practices. The report has been a long time coming, with the Commission’s statutory inquiry originally opening in 2018.

The time taken to reach this outcome is testament to how issues regarding personal behaviour of charity employees are often difficult to regulate. Behaviour is closely linked to the organisation’s values and culture. This requires long-term investment from all parts of an organisation – especially its leadership.

What are the key findings?

The Commission recognises Save the Children did some things right in the way it responded to the allegations. The report gives credit to the charity’s current leadership for commissioning two independent reviews (The ‘Silkin review’ and the ‘Shale review’) into their workplace culture.

But the inquiry also identified some serious errors, though there were elements of good practice in places:

  • Save the Children had appropriate policies for whistleblowing, disciplinary, anti-bullying and harassment and grievance. But these weren’t adequately followed in dealing with the complaints about the then chief executive. This meant a formal investigation wasn’t carried out. Because of that, there was no proper assessment of whether there was a disciplinary case to answer.
  • When further complaints about the then chief executive were made, the whole trustee board wasn’t informed. The Commission says this amounted to mismanagement.
  • No formal disciplinary procedures and no formal action had been taken. This meant the information that could be provided in a reference to the new employer was limited.
  • The charity made a serious incident report to the Commission about the allegations. But it failed to specify the senior person they referred to in this report was the chief executive. This also constituted mismanagement.
  • For the allegations of inappropriate behaviour against the then director of public policy, the inquiry found Save the Children took the right steps. They acted immediately, consulted HR, applied their policies, took external legal advice and instigated a disciplinary process promptly. The Commission also noted trustees were involved in decision-making. Given the seniority of the employee, this was the right thing to do.
  • The inquiry also criticises the way the charity responded to media reports about the allegations. It describes this as ‘at times unduly defensive’.

What can we learn from this?

Lessons for trustees

  • Day-to-day personnel issues are not normally a matter for trustees. But serious allegations against the chief executive – particularly of a large charity – are different. The trustees are collectively responsible for the administration and management of the charity. To best protect the charity’s interests, employees and beneficiaries, they need to be promptly informed about serious concerns about senior staff.
  • If trustees are submitting a serious incident report, as a general rule this has to include all the significant facts. For personnel issues, the Commission stated clearly in this report that they expect to be told if a serious incident relates to the chief executive.
  • The conduct of people who work, lead or volunteer for a charity is deeply influenced by its culture. Trustees need to set a strong overarching cultural framework and consistently role model the behaviour they’d like to see. As a trustee, you may want to consider an organisational culture review, to go alongside regular governance reviews.

Lessons for charity leaders

The behaviour of senior leaders also has a powerful impact on the overall culture of the organisation. As the Silkin review put it:

‘Whatever values statements and policies say, people take their biggest behavioural cues from what their leaders are seen to role model and what they’re seen to tolerate’. Charity leaders need to ‘own’ their organisation’s culture and be its champion.’

Lessons on how we communicate

Although there’s a responsibility to protect the charity’s reputation, this shouldn’t come at the expense of doing what’s right by individuals affected – even if there may be a reputational risk. This comes down to transparency and how to deal responsibly and openly with issues. As uncomfortable as this can be in the short term, the charity’s public response should not equate protecting its reputation with avoiding criticism at all costs. A charity’s reputation will usually be strengthened by being open and giving full explanations. This includes when things go wrong.

Lessons for charity HR

  • The role of culture shouldn’t lessen the importance of having clear policies in place. These are the basic building blocks everyone in the organisation needs to be able to access, understand and use.
  • These policies need to be continuously refreshed and brought to life, so they don’t end up being forgotten.

And finally a lesson for all of us…

Perhaps the biggest lesson the past few years have taught us is creating the right culture involves more than putting in place and following policies and procedures. No matter how good they are.

Good behaviours need to be role modelled from the top so staff and volunteers who report poor behaviour know they’ll be supported. But we all have a responsibility to behave in a way that reflects our organisation’s values. Culture change and improvement must be embedded through the day-to-day actions and behaviours. This should be modelled not just by trustees and leaders but also staff, volunteers, contractors and partners.

As the Commission itself rightly points out, it’s not for the regulator to enforce healthy internal cultures in charities. That’s an almost impossible task. Rather it’s a collective responsibility all of us have as part of our sector. We all want to see the charity sector meeting the public’s expectations and the expectations of those who work with and for us.

I know that’s harder for some people than others, and we all owe a debt of gratitude to those who’ve spoken out. But I hope by supporting each other to expect high standards from each other and particularly from leaders, we can create the sector we’d all like to see.

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

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