Oxfam: charity leaders need to act as guardians of brand values

Oxfam Haiti NZ(Image: Oxfam NZ)

The sector has been rocked over the last week as details of historic misconduct across some of Oxfam’s international relief programmes were revealed: sexual harassment, use of sex workers, threats of physical abuse and broader bullying. The fact that this happened isn’t surprising to me; as many have commented, it is not representative of the charity sector, but the world in which we live. Sexual harassment is currently – and rightly – in the spotlight and it was only a matter of time that charity employees who have behaved inappropriately were ‘outed’.

However, the management of Oxfam’s situation has left it open to criticism from various angles: beneficiaries, employees and volunteers seeking support and justice, DFID, Charity Commission, the media and the public, to name but a few stakeholders. Add to this the complexities of a global organisation, the current leaning of the UK Government towards reshaping DFID funding, and reduced trust in charities over the past few years, and you have a perfect storm. It is unfortunate for Oxfam that it is shouldering the brunt of this sector-wide ‘stuff’ on top of what it rightly should be held to account for.

Initially I did not feel that Oxfam should be punished for the actions of a few employees who were dismissed or managed out of the organisation as part of the internal investigation. After all, it did conduct an internal investigation and put in place enhanced safeguarding measures. However, after reading Councillor Helen Evans’ statement (Head of Safeguarding 2012-15) it became clear that while an internal investigation took place, the organisation knew about (other, arguably institutional) misconduct and not only didn’t act appropriately, but in some instances it didn’t act at all. The clearest example of this is when Councillor Helen Evans’ paper regarding safeguarding issues was dropped from a Leadership Team meeting agenda, she was told that while the Leadership Team recognised the issue, “there was nothing as a group that we could actually add to the situation”. Essentially, this was a ticking time bomb.

Of course, safeguarding policies and practice are key to protecting people and ensuring that people with reprehensible morals are unable to infiltrate organisations such as Oxfam. But behaviour is inextricably linked to brand. Now that the story is out there, we have to hope that the approach to crisis management and the strength of the brand will pull the organisation through. Personally, I feel that it will be a generation before Oxfam fully recovers from this.

Mark Goldring’s statement last week, which I think aimed to bring some perspective to the crisis, noted that nobody “murdered babies in their cots”, was particularly misjudged. Suggesting that there are worse things doesn’t detract from the terrible things that did happen. And this is where brand management and the role of marketing and communications colleagues is essential.

As part of my MSc at Cass I looked at charity brand in relation to giving. Unsurprisingly, it is trust which is the greatest antecedent to giving, with how money is spent, transparency and communications all playing important roles in achieving this. Additionally, organisations should look to draw out key brand characteristics which help to differentiate them from others, reflected in the look and feel of the brand, but most importantly, through how the organisation goes about its work – i.e. how it behaves. Every person working for an organisation helps to achieve the brand’s character through their communications and interactions with others.

In a Guardian article, Rupert Younger from the Oxford University Centre for Corporation Reputation helpfully simplifies brand in relation to reputation and notes that it can be looked at through two lenses: character and capability. When considering the actions of a few employees of a multi-national organisation delivering life-saving work, I don’t believe that the brand character shouldn’t be questioned. However, the capability of the organisation to deal with the issue is questionable. Oxfam must have acknowledged that their safeguarding issues represented a reputational risk, but how did it plan to address the issue directly and manage the repercussions of the issues to date? And how did it seek to build the brand character through staff engagement, policies and training?

Oxfam’s press advert over the weekend and public apology on its website and in charity shops across the country are excellent but demonstrate a belated transparency, empathy and regret. I wonder if their plight could have been avoided if they had acted more swiftly and decisively when the problems in Haiti and Chad began.

So, what can charities do to protect themselves from similar debacles? They can update their safeguarding and whistle-blowing policies – see the NCVO templates in Karl Wilding’s blog. Also check that your safeguarding training is robust – see the Charity Commission’s advice. And finally, but equally importantly, your Leadership Team must act as guardians of your brand and ensure that brand values permeates the whole organisation. Key to this is having marketing, brand and communications represented on the Leadership Team and putting in place a programme of brand development which comprises work to develop both the character and capability of the organisation.


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