The Oxfam sexual abuse scandal has dominated headlines around the world for the past seven days and continues to do so. With every new revelation of safeguarding failures or allegation of further abuses, the impact on one of the world’s most revered charities has grown, as the timeline above shows. These blows have included resignations, intensely political and regulatory scrutiny, and high profile ambassadors and corporate partners terminating or reviewing their relationships.
Most importantly, reported falls in donations from public pockets and threats to millions of pounds of funding from the government, EU and large organisations will severely damage Oxfam’s prime mission – helping vulnerable people and communities.
Oxfam’s very public fall from grace is also implicating other charities who operate abroad, with the whole sector being asked to prove they are trustworthy and transparent.
There is a lesson here, and one that is not unique to Oxfam or the charity sector.
At some point, a decision is made to take action against an individual or individuals, and a further decision that this should be done quickly and quietly to avoid damaging the reputation of the organisation. This is what Oxfam did in 2011 and many other organisations have done too.
The result? In the drive for a swift resolution, agreed policies and governance are swerved. Complaints are not investigated properly and whistleblowers ignored. Boards are not fully consulted or given the opportunity to discuss options. The full facts are not shared with regulators and partners. Perversely, this approach also allows the perpetrator to maintain some control and power, by perhaps negotiating a ‘clean’ reference in exchange for going quietly…
Imagine instead if Oxfam had taken short-term pain for long-term gain. What if they had commissioned an independent investigation of the allegations. What if all due process had been followed, the individual dismissed, and all the facts and findings placed in the public domain. Yes, there may have been an initial burst of interest, but ultimately the organisation, the cause of overseas aid and the people they are there to support, would have benefitted.
At a select committee hearing this week, Oxfam chief executive Mark continued to apologise and said that, with hindsight, the charity should have been more transparent. Because of that failure, this story continues to run and the impact grows. Oxfam has now lost around 7,000 regular donors, up from 1,500 last week. A Guardian/ICM poll supports the view of the permanent secretary at the Department for International Development that the Oxfam scandal had undermined public support for spending money on aid. This will hit those most in need.
Sunlight is truly the best disinfectant.