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

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

Save the Children-UK Shop, Darley Street, UK. Credit: Betty Longbottom/geog.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.

When I returned to Save the Children UK (SCF-UK) in 2014 as Director of Policy and Research I joined an organisation that was in many ways unrecognisable to the one that had given me my first job 15 years earlier. Over the years it had grown in size and ambition. In some respects it seemed now to be an organisation at the pinnacle of its powers, but it was also straining under the weight of profound internal contradictions. A brilliant and slick operation with hotlines to all the important people, it was one which had begun to lose its soul.

The brave women who have spoken up about alleged sexual harassment in public, or made their case in private, have provoked a crisis that is bound to lead to significant improvements in working practices not only at SCF-UK but across the charity sector. The alleged working culture they have described is one that almost everyone who has worked there can relate to, men as well as women.

Like most of the staff, I did not know the alleged full extent of the allegations against Brendan Cox and Justin Forsyth until I read the stories in the media like everyone else. But an ex-colleague’s memorable description of an atmosphere in which women “had to keep safe” reflects what many women told me in confidence at the time, and the rumours I had heard even before I joined.

The handling of the investigation into alleged sexual harassment at SCF-UK has become a story in the newspapers, and rightly so. But most reporting and commentary has stopped there, as if the alleged harassment were an aberration in an institution that was otherwise getting it right. In my view, the macho behaviour, the alleged harassment and bullying, some of which I saw for myself, was a symptom of a deeper malaise, a sign of an organisation losing its way.

It’s not easy to talk about this kind of thing. There are feelings of loyalty to individuals, institutions, and the wider cause. There are worries that maybe speaking out will do more damage than keeping schtum. There is self-doubt about one’s own analysis. But as internal and external investigations continue into the allegations it is vital to speak openly and honestly about the past.

Value vs values.

The circumstances under which some men harass women are depressingly familiar. What requires more explanation is how any organisation lets them get away with it. If an agency knows about sexual harassment but chooses to manage the victims rather than the perpetrators, it is sending a clear message that the value of the men involved is more important than the values most people would assume to be at the heart of a charity. In SCF-UK’s case, one complainant allegedly told an internal investigation leaked to the BBC that she was advised not to tell anyone about her case and that both her and Mr Forsyth's reputations were at risk. "They weren't trying to protect me or safeguard any other women. It was just about covering this up as quickly as they could," she said.

So this is a story about values, and about what is valued. And the fundamental problem, in my view, was a leadership determined to pursue growth and influence at all costs. These costs included a woman’s right to work in a safe environment. But that wasn’t the only cost. An over-focus on rapid growth can mean staff being overworked and feeling undervalued and unhappy, leading to higher than usual staff turnover. It can mean problems with programme effectiveness.

An exaggerated desire for “influence”—meaning closeness to power—can lead to an over-emphasis on easy wins and “results” rather than the fundamentals of structural change. It can lead to ill-thought through partnerships and relationships, including with the private sector. And it can lead you to disregard the sector as a whole, putting the interests of a particular organisation above a broader cause.

The fundamental challenge for a new leadership determined to move on from the past is not just to tackle the issue of harassment, although that is the most immediate priority. It is to tackle the fascination with size and influence that can put decent organisations at risk.

Management vs staff.

People have moaned about management in every organisation I have ever worked for, and as a manager I have definitely been moaned about! But I have never before seen such an obvious and substantial disconnect between the leadership of an organisation and the majority of its staff.

Forsyth and Cox, with whom I have worked closely, and whose capabilities and commitment I acknowledge, brought from Number 10 a verve and talent for advocacy and campaigning, and a vision for what an agency like SCF-UK could achieve. To give them their due, they saw that the organisation could be taken to the next level in terms of making a difference in the world.

Along with Sir Alan Parker (whom I do not know) and other senior executives, Cox and Forsyth succeeded in building an effective machine characterised by an intense ambition to make a difference and populated by a passionate and talented staff. There were certainly times when I was impressed by their vigour, rigour and strategic thinking, determination to think outside the box, and preparedness to take risks.

But the costs were too great, and they either didn’t see them or didn’t care. Their ruthless approach to getting results went hand in glove with a limited concern for the values that attract people to work for charities. I would go so far as to say they disdained them. The examples set, the comments made, the decisions taken, all slowly built a picture of a leadership distant from the majority of their colleagues, and from the sector itself.

When Tony Blair was awarded a “global legacy” prize it felt wrong to the staff, but those at the top didn’t see it. When Forsyth was featured in the Financial Times’ “How to spend it” section usually reserved for the rich and powerful to describe how they like to spend their money, the coverage was tone-deaf. It was under this leadership that we saw so-called “poverty porn” fundraising adverts on television, pulling on the heartstrings of the public rather than conveying a more positive message about the dignity of people living in poverty.

In each of these cases, growth and influence seemed to matter more to the leadership than values. Of course, they were also motivated by noble goals—everyone is. But in their inability to understand dignity, authenticity and humility, and their instinct to buddy up to people in power, they lost their way.

I remember my very first meeting in my new organisation in 2014, when a group of colleagues sat around Cox taking notes on his directives rather than engaging in the to and fro of debate that is more usual in the NGO sector. One of the things I find most depressing, looking back on it, is how many young people will have joined the agency and thought that this was the norm for the charity sector; whereas those of us that have worked for a range of charities know it was an exception.

At one staff meeting, Forsyth defended his approach against a criticism that it didn’t reflect staff preferences by saying, “Save the Children is not a democracy.” Of course, he was right. But it is an organisation that depends on brilliant people putting in overtime and boundless energy for something they believe in—and those people need to be valued, nurtured and respected.

This macho approach to leadership, I learnt, was not unrelated to alleged sexual harassment. When an organisational culture begins to breakdown, management tends to break down too. I don’t believe that Cox or Forsyth were sufficiently well managed. In fact, as star performers when judged in terms of growth and influence they were given a lot of latitude to do as they wished. They were considered so valuable to the organisation that their weaknesses were arguably brushed under the carpet. People who complained were seen as a nuisance, as barriers. According to the SCF-UK’s own internal investigations by the law firm Lewis Silkin and reported by the BBC, the agency’s Head of HR received a "less than supportive response" when allegations were made about Forsyth’s behaviour, "which he feared was as a result of Sir Alan Parker and Justin Forsyth being very close."

Growth vs dignity.

What these leaders never understood, and what the new leadership of SCF-UK must, is that how matters as much as what. This is an unspoken truth in the charity sector. People go to work every day expecting to experience the values that their organisation claims to believe in. When that doesn’t happen, things begin to fall apart.

They knew they stood for influence and size, but they didn’t know exactly why. To “reach more children” was the mantra, but that is absurd. If it hadn’t been SCF-UK winning contracts it would have been other organisations, the “competitors.” One massive organisation or ten smaller ones? It doesn’t matter—the same number of children would be “reached,” and they don’t mind which organisations do the reaching.

Growth and influence are not goals in themselves, certainly not in charities. If you have lost your moral compass, your growth and influence are built on very shaky foundations. Dominic Nutt, a former head of media, reports the bizarre objective among senior SCF-UK executives to “take down Oxfam.” What kind of human rights organisation wants to “take down” another important charity? The same one in which a senior executive asked me at a meeting with other NGOs, “It there anyone here we should poach?”

Effective international cooperation is about putting the least powerful first—about transferring power. But at SCF-UK I heard NGO partners from the Global South referred to by leaders as “crazies,” and other charities badmouthed openly as the collegial practices of the charity sector were arrogantly ignored. It is not always easy to work in coalition with people from your own country, let alone from other cultures, but respect is a sine qua non of this type of work.

Mea Culpa.

One final thought. It is easier to criticise others than oneself. What happened at SCF-UK was not my fault, but that does not mean I am above blame. I could have done more to counterbalance the alleged harassment, the ways of working and the overall direction of the organisation. The truth is that all of us could have done things differently, and we all wish we had been bolder earlier.

I did criticise and try to influence direction and strategy in management meetings, as did others. And I tried to exemplify a participatory approach in my team, attempting to build confidence and broaden perspectives. I was preparing to resign if Cox wasn’t dealt with—until he beat me to it.

But I was not organised and determined enough to use what power I had to insist on change. Perhaps I didn’t stay long enough to make a concerted impact. And ultimately, I wasn’t confident enough to tell Cox and Forsyth to their faces the damage they were doing to the organisation and the sector. That is my biggest regret.

History will not judge this moment in SCF-UK’s evolution kindly, but what next for the organization and other NGOs in the sector? That’s the question I’ll be exploring in part two of this article which comes out next week.

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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 the client’s office.

 

About the author

Jonathan Glennie is a writer and researcher on poverty and human rights, looking at the changing nature of development cooperation as global paradigms and relationships evolve. He has held senior positions in several international organisations. He has written regularly for The Guardian and has published a well-received book on aid. Follow him on twitter @jonathanglennie.


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