Hitting the right note: Does the charity sector have a problem with whistle-blowing?

Our latest blog looks at the challenges of being a whistle-blower in the charity sector.
Joe Saxton
 

Most (if not all) of the recent charity scandals have been ‘discovered’ by outsiders. The extent of industrial fundraising was revealed because of the Olive Cooke scandal and subsequent newspaper coverage. The safeguarding breaches in Haiti and elsewhere came out because of an article in the Times. The extent and scale of the CEO pay in the charity sector issue came to light because of an article in the Telegraph. The same is true of the CEO pay scandals in Ireland – it took newspaper involvement to reveal the extent of high CEO pay to the public.

Something that troubles me in these examples is that it took newspapers to really get change moving. There was no shortage of donors and fundraisers who were appalled by the extent and nature of some fundraising tactics – but the Institute of Fundraising and the other self-regulation bodies were indifferent to these messages. For example, it took them 18 months to decide that a ‘no cold-callers’ sticker on a front door should apply to fundraisers. After the Haiti scandal, it became clear that lots of people had raised concerns about the weaknesses in Oxfam’s approach to safeguarding – but it wasn’t enough to affect any meaningful change. I’d heard about some of the shenanigans at Save the Children on the grapevine, and a lot of other people must have too. Where were charities in the child grooming scandals in Oxford, Rotherham and elsewhere? In the Irish context, there had been a proposal for an Irish charity regulator for some years, and progress was painfully slow – until the scandals hit the media.

Whistle-blowing is one of the ways that any system receives the indicators that things need to change – and there is nothing easy about it. An individual or individuals see that something is wrong, bypass their management line, and tell senior management about it. Stephen Bolsin, the anaesthetist who revealed the extent of premature child deaths after cardiac surgery at Bristol Royal Infirmary had to emigrate to Australia after he blew the whistle on what was happening there; one calculation was that 170 children who died at the hands of incompetent paediatric heart surgeons could have survived in other NHS units.

The challenge of being a whistle-blower in a charity was brought home to me when I met with an old colleague John from my Oxfam days. John, now a Director of Communications at a decent size charity, was concerned that his charity’s approach to fundraising was flawed. He felt that the charity trustees had conflicts of interests with outside business interests, which weren’t being properly addressed. He told the chair of trustees who seemed eager to find reasons to convince themself that it wasn’t really a problem. Other trustees were asked didn’t seem to mind: too keen perhaps to stay in favour with the Chair and CEO.  

John has young children for whom he is part primary carer; job flexibility allowing him to get home for school pick up two days a week is really important. He is concerned that going public with his concerns would probably mean losing his job, or at least work flexibility. John investigated the Charity Commission’s whistle-blowing service; the first step was a helpful call to a charity called Protect which gave a useful rundown of processes and legal rights. However, to make a formal complaint he had to respond to 10 questions on the Commission website (you’ll need to scroll down a bit to find them). At this point, John got cold feet. The questions are followed by the less than reassuring highlighted message It is a criminal offence to knowingly or recklessly provide false or misleading information to the Charity Commission’ with no equivalent message assuring anonymity, the importance of whistle-blowing, or highlighting why it matters. I wonder how many people have used this service. John for his part decided that he had tried to tell the organisation about its errors, and was going to keep his head down.

If we want to tackle problems and issues in the charity sector before they spread or become even bigger, we need to have a culture which welcomes dissent, which finds ways to discover what people think is going on, and to address them early. My conversation with John has made me realise that where I am a trustee, I need to go and look at how we encourage people to tell us what they think. Newspapers have played a vital role in providing publicity that has brought about much needed change in some charities; however, a sector that is born out of a passion to change the world seems remarkably resistant to changing itself. Problems like bad fundraising, lax governance or poor safeguarding will end on the frontpages; but they could be halted at the grassroots with somebody telling management their concerns, and with them being listened to.

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