What does the review exposing bullying and harassment at the NCVO say about the charity model and how can we change things?

| Bex Clarkson

With his tongue half in his cheek, a non-profit sector contact of mine said to me only last week . . . that “people expect private firms to behave badly, but charities to be the good guys.” Tariq Khwaja

If someone had said this to me, I would have said: “you wouldn’t expect that if you had ever worked for a charity”.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to go very far to find someone who has had a bad experience of working for a charity, quite often because they raised awkward issues or were too outspoken about matters which make people uncomfortable. Issues such as racism, white privilege and gender power imbalance, for example. Dealing with such challenges ought to be where charities shine – after all they are supposed to be about social justice and a better society – but it doesn’t seem to always work out that way. And this is strikingly apparent given the findings of a recent review of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), which has laid bare some ugly truths as it found evidence of “bullying and harassment taking place ‘with impunity’” at all levels of the organisation.

That description is lifted from Third Sector website (which reports on issues relating to charities). Third Sector is in a privileged position – it has actually seen the report, which is more than the rest of us will be able to do, if NCVO maintains its current stance. Whilst the organisation has stated that it accepts the report’s findings, and it has shared the report internally with staff (for which we will have to take its word), it is declining to make it public. We might speculate whose interests this serves, particularly as NCVO has said that, whilst it wishes to share its mistakes and learning, it first needs to ‘get its own house in order.’ Does this mean serving up a sanitised version of what has been going on once some more procedures have been put in place and a few meetings with ‘stakeholders’ have happened? If so, where is the accountability? How much faith do we place in an organisation which has publicly acknowledged that it is ‘structurally racist’ to correct itself?

I should own here that the lens I bring to this is of a white woman who has been ‘in’ the voluntary sector in one form or another for over thirty years, and who has as a result some real concerns about the way charities conduct themselves (whilst thinking themselves ‘the good guys.’) The NCVO findings are reflective of a very worrying reality in the charitable field and I cite the truly shocking experiences bravely documented on #CharitySoWhite and #NotJustNCVO.

But there is an opportunity here for the NCVO. Rather than pursue a path of saving the organisation at any cost, now is the time to be bold both in its reparation to staff who have suffered and to the other people and communities it has failed. The way the NCVO choose to handle this could be used as a blueprint for how organisations can do a properly radical re-think, and the methodology for this will be scary, challenging and it will (if done right) lead to profound change across the charitable sector.

In my view, the ‘what next’ for the NCVO should absolutely not be the recruitment of a ‘charismatic leader’ who can get the organisation out of this shameful space, and I shall be very interested to see if this is what happens. I say this because I have a personal experience of their Chief Executive Officer (CEO) hiring process.

When NCVO advertised for a new CEO two years ago, I applied as one half of a job share. We wryly observed that between us we ticked all the equalities boxes. Somewhat to our surprise, we got through to first round interviews with the recruitment agency NCVO had hired. I say ‘surprise’ because the application we submitted was hard-hitting. We used the term ‘moribund’ to describe the organisation and stated that we would use the role as a means of fundamentally shifting power to those currently denied it. At the time, I credited NCVO with sticking to its principles – the advertisement had made it clear that the organisation was seeking fresh perspectives, new ideas and a keenness that the CEO role was at the forefront of change and innovation for the voluntary sector in the twenty-first century.

Which is why it was rather strange that, having made a big and very public noise about all this, when it actually came down to it, they selected as CEO someone who had been a part of the organisation for twenty-three years. That’s the problem with wanting change, isn’t it? You can really like the idea of it until you fully grasp what it will mean – for you personally and for an organisation you feel protective towards. And of course, organisations in their purest form are people. The policies, procedures and all the rest of it are simply window dressing for what is essentially a group of people who will have very different values, priorities and beliefs, but who are collectively construed to be signed up to the organisation’s mission and vision.

I am not suggesting that a different sort of CEO would have solved all problems or completely stopped racism, bullying and overt oppression from being ‘pervasive and systemic, indicative of a culture where overt oppression is allowed to continue with impunity’ at NCVO. Clearly there is something bigger going on than can’t be attributed to one individual, but that does not mean that all those involved shouldn’t ponder their individual responsibility in this and what should happen next.

Instead, I remain persuaded by the validity of what was proposed in that CEO job application two years ago that advocated for fresh perspectives and innovation for the voluntary sector. For too long, the voluntary sector has sought answers in the wrong places, believing that being more professional or ‘business like’ is the way forward, when in fact, solutions lie within the richness of connections, skills and experience which exist in people and their communities. Organisation-based approaches have for too long been seen as the mechanism by which to connect with people (with a questionable degree of success).

So, what might the remedies be?

To start – can I put forward, in the strongest possible terms – no more research into whether or not inequality exists within charities. It does, and the Home Truths report is crisply succinct on the issue of racism (endemic, in case you were wondering). We can carry on commissioning and spending a fortune on yet more research, but I’d argue that we know by now what the problem is and conducting any more is merely contributing to the white saviour handwringing but lets everyone off the hook from doing anything about it.

And next, recognise how much resistance is out there.

It is salutary that one of the things shown in the report on NCVO is that ‘junior’ staff feared being labelled as troublemakers as part of a pattern of ‘institutional gaslighting’, and I strongly identify with this, having (proudly) occupied the ‘troublemaker’ space myself on a number of occasions, most recently for pushing hard for a ‘heritage’ organisation to support Black Lives Matter and for it to have a clear stance on the removal of statues of slave traders. I don’t think that this is unreasonable (and I was genuinely shocked at how impossible this was to achieve). But it nevertheless serves as a good illustration of how strong the resistance is to change, even from organisations which will tell you how anti-racist they are on their websites, but are content to leave it to the gods after that.

Look at where the money goes.

As stated earlier, I think the worst of all possible worlds would be to advertise for another CEO, hire yet another bunch of consultants and have a few focus groups, and yet all too often that is what is seen as an innovative solution. It isn’t. What would be a radical start would be putting some serious thought into whether what is currently expended on six senior staff salaries or consultant fees, might achieve more if deployed another way. The last report filed with the Charity Commission showed the six highest paid employees at NCVO cost in excess of half a million pounds per year, and whilst I would consider that excessive even in a well-run and high achieving charity, given the quite shocking levels of discrimination in this circumstance, I think it is an abomination. If we are serious about increasing the diversity of the voluntary sector, we could, for example, invest in a programme specifically designed to address the parlous lack of Black and ethnic minority staff in the charitable sector, particularly at senior level. If we want more Black and ethnic minority people in senior positions and on Boards – employ them, and if that means going contrary to equalities law, let’s remember Rosa Parks.  

And finally, let’s listen to what is actually needed before we act.

What would ‘charity’ look like if we started by asking people in poverty, those who are disenfranchised, those living in sub-standard housing and trying to raise children in a lockdown, what it is they actually need, took what they said seriously and acted diligently on the results? We have done this the wrong way round for too long, creating projects and programmes with money distributed by funders who are far more concerned about the needs of their boards than those of their recipients. It’s long overdue that this ‘model’ be dispensed with. It is time, in fact, to give up on trying to rescue and rebuild systems which are damaging and costly and invest in people, humanity and accountability.

I’m really interested in starting a discussion on this so let me know what you think by getting in touch.

This blog is written by Bex Clarkson. Bex has worked in the charitable sector for thirty years and she is an experienced fundraiser. She writes, lifts weights and thinks – although not at the same time (usually). She believes in fairness and justice and is a big advocate and campaigner for co-production. Read more of her articles here.

Photo by Zach Lucero

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