Lessons to be learned for the charity sector from the Oxfam (and other) scandals

7 March, 2018

When the Charity Commission updated and republished their safeguarding policy on 6 December 2017, I wonder whether they realised how timely that advice would be?


Since the story involving the Presidents Club Dinner broke in January with allegations that the female hostesses at the all male event were groped and harassed, news of scandal within the charity sector has been coming thick and fast.


Most of this has focused on Oxfam, with reports in the Times alleging that senior staff at the charity (in particular Roland van Hauwermeiren, country director for Haiti) had used prostitutes in Haiti who in some cases may have been under age. Oxfam then continued to make the headlines as it emerged that concerns raised by the former Head of Safeguarding at Oxfam regarding ‘sex for aid’ claims and an allegation of assault in one of the charity’s UK shops were allegedly ignored.


More recently, Save the Children made news when it was reported that Brendan Cox, widower of murdered MP Jo Cox, had been under investigation for sexually inappropriate behaviour towards women whilst Director of Policy at the charity in 2015 but was able to leave the charity before that investigation concluded.


According to reports, former Development Secretary, Priti Patel tells us the Oxfam case is “just the tip of the ice berg”. So what lessons can the charity sector as a whole learn from these events?


1. The case for moral leadership

Trustees are ultimately responsible for safeguarding and should ensure they are setting the right tone in the organisation. The Charity Commission’s safeguarding policy says trustees should:

 “make public their clear commitment to safeguarding by publishing the charity’s safeguarding policy and stating that failure to follow it will be dealt with as a very serious matter.”


The Times report into Oxfam alleges there was a ‘culture of impunity’ among staff in Haiti and the International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt, has called for Oxfam to “demonstrate the moral leadership necessary to address this scandal”.


2. Transparency means transparency!

Although Oxfam did carry out a thorough investigation into the incidents in Haiti at the time and made a report to the Charity Commission, allegedly the report did not make it clear that the incidents concerned sexual misconduct or beneficiaries.


It seems that Oxfam thought that if the full scale of events became public, it would damage the reputation of the charity. As it turned out, the events in question came to light anyway only with the added negativity of a ‘cover up’.


3. Simple things matter

DBS checks should always be required where a charity employee or volunteer will be coming into regular contact with children or vulnerable adults.


We don’t know whether the volunteer at Oxfam who allegedly assaulted a young volunteer would have failed a DBS check. However, concerns were raised at the time that Oxfam may not be carrying out sufficient background checks against those working in their charity shops.


4. Beware conflicts of interest

The Brendan Cox story reflects particularly badly on the charity because the suggestion had been made that he was able to escape a full investigation because he was shielded by his close friend who was chief executive at Save the Children at the time of the alleged incidents.


In a similar vein, Save the Children have been criticised just the other week for allowing their current Chief Executive to review the handling of complaints about sexual misconduct because he was a member of the charity’s board when the two directors were accused of behaving inappropriately. The Charity Commission told Mr Watkins his role could amount to “marking your own homework”. Mr Watkins has since stepped away from the review.


5. Pay more than lip service to your safeguarding / recruitment policies

According to news reports it is alleged that Oxfam’s recruitment process identified that Roland van Hauwermeiren had ‘gender issues’. However, even with this information they still went ahead and appointed him country director in Haiti. With the benefit of hindsight this does seem astonishing but does demonstrate how Oxfam could have avoided so much distress (and damage to their reputation) had they acted on information made available to them by their own processes.


6. Ensure you have a robust whistle blowing policy

Oxfam have acknowledged that staff felt intimidated and unable to raise the alarm about what was going on in Haiti and to their credit have since introduced a confidential whistleblowing hotline that staff can use.


Not many charities will have the funds to establish a hotline but all charities should ensure they have a Whistleblowing Policy in place and that staff know about it.




Safeguarding is a live issue across all walks of life at the moment but quite rightly charities are expected to demonstrate even higher standards than other sectors given their  philanthropic status.


In light of recent events, the Charity Commission has set out a number of steps it proposes to take on safeguarding. These include a summit on safeguarding in UK charities and a new safeguarding task force.


We will update you on those as they happen. In the meantime, if you need any help preparing or reviewing your safeguarding or whistleblowing policy, please contact  Rhona Darbyshire