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Why are so many charities toxic and so far away from good governance and healthy workplace cultures?

The past few weeks have not been pretty for the Third Sector. In January, the lnternational Development Committee published its report, Progress on tackling the sexual exploitation and abuse of aid beneficiaries, which found abuse of beneficiaries was rife. The report notes that since the Oxfam sex scandalthe Department for International Development, non-governmental organisations, private sector suppliers and the United Nations have introduced new practices and procedures to tackle this problem and improve whistleblowing policies and protections.’

The report mentions progress has been made with many aid organisations introducing new training to raise awareness among staff and some have employed new abuse champions and coordinators. But it warns, ‘whilst commendable, we are keen to ensure this does not become a box-ticking exercise that fails to address the underlying culture that has enabled sexual exploitation and abuse to persist.’

Protect runs an Advice Line for the Charity Commission for charity workers, which we have operated since June 2019. On average we receive almost 70 calls a month from charities. Whilst good we receive these calls, we believe many more workers may have witnessed wrongdoing, and we encourage them to call us for advice.

Box-ticking can be a real issue when it comes whistleblowing, where organisations often believe having a policy and process in place is enough. What is needed is for the arrangements to be embraced by senior management from the Board and Chief Executive downwards.  There needs to be training for managers on how to respond to whistleblowing concerns raised, and for staff more generally so they know what to do if they witness public interest concerns.  There also needs to be a review process at board level where the effectiveness of the whistleblowing arrangements are assessed, gaps can be identified and then dealt with.  All of these measures will help create a more open culture that is more tolerant of public interest concerns being raised.

Bullying, harassment and toxic work cultures, sadly of late, have been linked with many Third Sector organisations.  Effective whistleblowing arrangements may have highlighted the problem before it became endemic in an organisation.

Recent press examples include former senior staff at St John Ambulance who told trade publication the Third Sector, of a  ‘pervading culture of bullying’ – a claim the charity rejected. And in the last week, the NCVO, the membership body for the voluntary sector, has itself been found to have a toxic work culture. Its equality, diversity and inclusion report found evidence of “bullying and harassment” on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation and disability happening “with impunity” at all levels of the organisation, leaving members of minority groups there feeling “unsafe at work”. NCVO leaders have said they were “shocked and ashamed” that the charity allowed “toxic culture” to persist and have pledged to turn things around quickly.

Our Third Sector report, Time to Transform, published in 2020,  looked at the whistleblowing culture of charities and found weak spots in training staff – with 86% of charities failing to train staff receiving or acting on whistleblowing concerns. Perhaps not surprising then that only 52% of charities differentiated between personal grievances and whistleblowing matters.

We will continue to support the sector as best we can, and promote the values of good governance and the benefits a strong whistleblowing culture brings to an organisation.

If you are a charity and would like to find out more about our training, consultancy support or our Whistleblowing Benchmark to identify governance weak spots, please contact our Business Support Team on 020 3455 2252 or email