16 February 2018 by Tony Fisher
The developing tale of woe at Oxfam perhaps shows more than anything else how a failure of governance can have catastrophic consequences for a charity. Oxfam is not one organisation, but a complex group of organisations. Stichting Oxfam International, the umbrella organisation, is registered in the Hague, Netherlands and is a foreign company limited by guarantee in the United Kingdom. Its operations are carried out through 20 affiliate organisations in different parts of the world including Oxfam GB. All affiliates are represented on the Board of the umbrella organisation by their Chair and Executive Director. The Board meets annually. The “Oxfam International Board Accountability Policies” last updated in 2012 state that “Oxfam enjoys high levels of public trust and this brings a responsibility to provide high quality, timely and relevant information about its work.” That statement looks incongruous now in the present furore.
Despite the complexity of the organisation (or perhaps because of it) something went wrong. Its immediate response has been to appoint an Independent Commission on Sexual Misconduct, Accountability and Culture Change as one of ten measures announced to “ensure an urgent, comprehensive and accountable response across the Oxfam confederation which will lead to deep-rooted lasting change.” Why has it taken a crisis to force re-examination of the culture and safe-guarding within an organisation which daily deals with some of the most desperate and vulnerable people on the planet? Time will tell what went wrong and how senior officials appear to have been guilty of an abuse of power whilst carrying out their humanitarian mission.
Whatever else the Oxfam debacle is, it is certainly a wake-up call to all charities who work with vulnerable groups to review their own governance and lines of accountability. In every such body there needs to be a real commitment to transparency and accountability and adoption of and adherence to the necessary policies, practices and culture which will achieve this. As with most things, this starts at the top. Trustees and senior executive staff have to lead the process.
If you need assistance in carrying out a top down governance review we can help. We have extensive experience of helping charities review their policies and procedures to manage the risks of a governance failure. Don’t let the same woes visit your charity. If you would like to discuss our charity law services in more detail then please contact the team on 01206 700113 or on [email protected].