At what cost? A second reflection on the crisis at Save the Children UK

Part two: ‘where next?’ Part one on ‘what went wrong’ can be found here.

Jonathan Glennie
3 June 2018


Save the Children/Curiosity, Bushmills, Northern Ireland. CC-BY-SA 2.0 © Kenneth Allen -

In the first part of this article I explored the roots of the recent crisis at Save the Children UK (SCF-UK). That the principal characters involved have all now resigned their posts in the wake of this crisis becoming public is testament to the power of staff and supporters who demand so much better from an organisation of Save the Children’s stature.

They did some good things, of course, and they left behind an organisation that in the right hands could make a huge difference for children. But no-one can work to their best ability with confused ethics at the top. It becomes a constant talking point and distraction.

But from every crisis an opportunity arises, and this is a golden opportunity to do things differently. What might that mean in practice?

First, the organisation needs to complete the painful process of investigating the handling of allegations of sexual harassment, which is still the most vivid example of what went wrong. We had at least one investigation when I was there, which obviously didn’t do its job properly because two more are underway. To show that it has changed, the organisation should take the initiative by setting out its own version of what happened in detail, rather than waiting for investigative journalists, parliamentary committees or the Charity Commission to do so.

You can’t have change on the cheap, and you can’t build a new future while the past is left unresolved. Talking with present-day staff, I am confident that, with continued pressure, the organisation will succeed in stamping out the likelihood of sexual harassment or any other type of bullying.

But it can’t end there. The alleged sexual harassment was only the most obvious example of what was going wrong, an outward sign of a deeper problem. So it’s time to critique the whole framework in which previous leaders seemed to operate, including their version of success in an international charity and their understanding of what it means to work for children’s rights and international solidarity in the 21st century.

Lessons for the aid sector.

What happened at SCF-UK is an extreme case of what is happening in many charities, where long-held values and beliefs about how societies and organisations should work seem increasingly in tension with the context and incentive frameworks in which they operate.

The funding context is complex and difficult, as increasingly charities are encouraged to bid against each other for limited funds, and to compete on the doorstep. The struggle to survive and demonstrate impact tends to harm rather than help attempts to act in the interests of staff and beneficiaries. The temptation to focus on superficial gloss rather than profound challenges is one to which no charity is immune, and most have, on occasion, fallen.

Once a bulwark of values, the aid sector is in danger of becoming just another arm of politics and business—so long as a quiet but bold insistence on doing things differently continues to give way to a feeble attempt to copy and follow, to make endless compromises on the altar of growth.

The news that SCF-UK is suspending new proposals for UK Government projects is the final ironic nail in the coffin of the previous era at the top of the organisation. Leaders obsessed with growth at all costs must now realise that even that vacuous objective is undermined when care is not taken of organisational culture and values.

That’s why what happened at SCF-UK should stand as a cautionary tale; no longer a model to emulate, it is a case study to be reflected on at length. It is hard to distil such a complicated story into simple lessons for the sector, but let me suggest five maxims for a new generation of international NGO leaders:

1. Put values first. The ‘what’ matters—of course it does; large and powerful international charities really can make a countervailing difference against a trend to look inwards at national interests. But the costs have to be weighed too, so the ‘how’ matters just as much. The previous leadership may have been talented, but the real talent, as a wise friend in another INGO pointed out to me, is having success and impact without losing touch with your values and sense of solidarity. The charity sector should be proudly different, rather than chasing the coat-tails of other sectors that are wrongly perceived to be more efficient or effective.

2. Diversify your influences and relationships. Save the Children got the balance wrong between cultivating relationships with the powerful in the North and standing first and foremost with the underdog. What matters. How matters. And Who matters too. Voices from the South need to come to the fore to influence strategy. It’s not that you can’t partner with the private sector or work closely with governments—risks are often worth taking in these areas. But you have to do it thoughtfully, cognisant of the risks involved, and with a clear plan to achieve genuine impact and not just noise, handshakes and big-sounding numbers. A deeper analysis of politics and structures is required if charities are going to regain the trust of serious development professionals and the public at large. That means a concern for systems change and attacking all forms of inequality, and it means building relationships in a humble, listening way.

3. Growth is not a strategy. Being big and powerful is not enough. There needs to be a re-evaluation of the centrality of financial targets in the organisation’s culture. It is possible to grow fast and maintain a focus on impact, staff wellbeing and values, but this is hard. A really bold leader would consider non-growth or even shrinkage as seriously as growth. Leaving behind a smaller but better organisation is a sign of success, not failure. Be ambitious for impact, values and relationships, not growth.

4. Collaborate, don’t just compete and compromise. Development is a marathon as well as a sprint. Long-term relationships are more important than short-term ‘wins;’ solidarity is more important than fleeting results. The sector matters more than particular organisations. Every part of it should be trying to build up all the other parts, not to do them down. This used to be obvious; it should soon be so again. Moving away from the pressure to grow endlessly will help rebuild a spirit of collaboration.

5. Trust your staff. The ways of working that became dominant at SCF-UK were increasingly at odds with the instincts and preferences of those who made up the majority of the workforce: top-down directive leadership and too much compromise, too much cosying up to power. That is neither wise nor sustainable. Staff and supporters expect things in charities to be done in a certain way. They understand the need to compromise, but they have a good sense of when and where. And they expect to be listened to. Leaders are foolish when they ignore the wisdom of their colleagues. That is not to say that leaders can’t be bold and visionary; it means that they have to respect their colleagues, the wider movement and the evidence, and not just their own desire to do things differently.

Personal agency.

None of these things are easy to get right. All depend on the wisdom of ethical leaders to strike a balance between different tensions and incentives, and to retain a real sense of humility—and I mean leaders at all levels. Experience is important, but one lesson from this crisis is that junior staff can sometimes see things more clearly than old-hands, and can make the difference if they are brave enough to speak out.

In the world of work, of politics and campaigning, we often feel that we are part of someone else's created system. But that is only partly true. We are the system too. We are creating it every day with our decisions and through our words and actions. It took me too long to learn this fact. It’s time to do things differently.

I believe the staff, and to some extent volunteers and supporters, are the key to SCF-UK’s future. Now that the media has outed the issues, staff and supporters have found their voice. More than ever they must keep pushing to ensure that a renewed and dignified Save the Children emerges, powerful in its support for children’s rights but always reflecting the values it publicly espouses in the way in which it operates: kindness, fairness and respect.

If we have learned one thing from this appalling mess, it is that people who care for an organisation cannot just leave it in the hands of trustees and senior leadership. We all need to take responsibility and, if necessary, take a stand.

Statement from openDemocracy.

In relation to the handling of allegations of sexual harassment at Save the Children UK, Save the Children-UK’s lawyers have asked us to point out that their client did not act to cover up or ‘silence’ complaints against Justin Forsyth and/or Brendan Cox; has policies in place to protect its workforce; and did not seek to discourage people from speaking out. Furthermore, that when the Justin Forsyth matters were raised with the Chair, he instructed HR to manage the process overseen by a Trustee. The complaints made in relation to Mr Forsyth were resolved at the time on a confidential and informal basis, with the approval of the complainants; and that when management became aware of an alleged incident involving Mr Cox at a Summer party in 2015 SCF-UK took immediate action to investigate the matter, and as part of the investigation Mr Cox was suspended and not allowed back into our client’s office.

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