How many charities are covering up bad behaviour with NDAs? Let’s make them tell us.

I was dismayed to read the recent allegations against Alzheimer’s Society. The charity is accused of spending as much as £750,000 on NDAs with staff (Alzheimer’s Society denies the allegations). NDAs, or non-disclosure agreements, typically involve a payment to an employee on the condition that they do not disclose specific information about the organisation to anyone else.

NDAs do have some legitimate uses: no charity or business would want employees or ex-employees to share trade secrets with competitors. It’s arguable, however, whether NDAs used to cover up allegations of bullying, sexual harassment or other unethical behaviour are reasonable. I’d say no, especially because other notable users of NDAs include Harvey Weinstein, and the arbitration service Acas agrees with me.

Acas argues that using NDAs in this way “stops businesses from tackling the underlying issue” and that they “should not be used to hide a problem or brush it under the carpet”.

The open secret is that bullying is endemic in the charity sector

There is, sadly, an acknowledged problem with bullying in the charity sector, which is all the more distressing due to our supposed emphasis on ethical values. The issue has been documented in detail by ACEVO in their report “In Plain Sight”; I’m aware of anecdotal evidence from others; and unfortunately I’ve been the victim of bullying and discrimination myself.

The ACEVO report makes several much-needed recommendations regarding the need to improve workplace cultures and whistleblowing procedures and clarify the role of the Charity Commission. However, many of these assume good faith. I don’t see how they will make much of an impact on the charities that most urgently need to change – for example where a powerful senior leader is the perpetrator and unlikely to change their behaviour, and where trustees may be unaware or willing to turn a blind eye.

The ACEVO report also includes powerful examples of the impact of workplace bullying. It can destroy mental health, lead to breakdowns, create physical health issues, negatively affect personal relationships, and cause suicidal thoughts. I will not repeat their evidence here, but I urge you to read the report.

NDA reporting should be a mandatory part of charity accounts

It is currently impossible to know if, or to what extent, charities use NDAs to cover up complaints of bad behaviour. Perhaps it’s not a major problem in our sector, but I think this is an area worth exploring; the cost of ignoring it is far too high.

I believe that charities should be required to include a line in their accounts for NDA payoffs where a complaint is involved, summarising the total amount and the number of NDAs made.

It is clear that allegations of bullying and large payoffs are potentially highly damaging to charity reputations. I can’t imagine that many donors would be happy to find out that their money was being used to silence staff.

By forcing charities to report a number, cultural problems will quickly make themselves starkly known. The reputational risk of inaction will become untenable.

I often wonder if trustees are aware of what’s being done in their name. If they’re not aware of a bullying or otherwise toxic culture, then this would focus their attention on the issue. And if they don’t care – perhaps because the perpetrator is known to get “good results” – it would force them to take action for the sake of their charity’s reputation.

The ACEVO report found that bullying was often an “open secret” in the organisations where it occurred. Well, my view is that if everyone already knows, the knowledge should be shared as widely and frankly as possible. This would lead to some extremely uncomfortable conversations, but would ultimately result in a happier, healthier and more effective charity sector.

Where’s the charity sector’s sense of corporate responsibility?

Forster Communications’ new report, Matching Method to Mission, highlights a stark and somewhat shocking truth. Only two of the top 100 charities (Cancer Research UK and RNLI) have a corporate responsibility policy.

The report’s authors rightly raise this as a pressing concern. The impact on public trust is severe. The risk of further poor behaviour is real. And the sector’s ability to recruit the best and brightest will be affected.

Once again, the private sector is outshining the charity sector, as it is on issues such as diversity. The report’s authors suggest that the “Halo Effect” might be a factor: explaining that because “charities rely on an outdated belief that because they are a charity, everything they do must be beneficial.”

That’s very obviously not true: the scandals of Olive Cooke, Kids Company and the Garden Bridge all spring immediately to mind.

The report also quotes Virgin Media’s Head of Sustainability, Katie Buchanan: “Ultimately, charities don’t have a monopoly on creating social change and businesses may choose to take on a social issue without them.” She warns that this lack of attention to how we conduct our business may affect our ability to build corporate partnerships in future.

We need to step up to address some of the most pressing issues of our time

Those of us who pay even the slightest attention to the non-Brexit news these days will be wrestling, at least on some level, with the existential issue of climate change. We must be careful to choose optimism over despair, as I’ve previously written, but there’s no question that the situation is dire. And, as my former colleague Russell Benson has written, “if we are truly on course to destroy our planet, why bother with our missions anyway?”

Most of us, I hope, have chosen to work in the charity sector due to a sense of social responsibility. Why would we therefore be satisfied by workplace policies that don’t prioritise train travel over short-haul flights where possible? That don’t ensure that materials for marathon runners are fairly produced? That aren’t bothered about an ethical investment policy?

Divestment from fossil fuels would be a good place to start

It is heartening to read that a coalition of charities has requested guidance from the Charity Commission on whether they are legally required to align their investments with their mission. (There is no clear response from the Charity Commission as yet)

Whatever the Charity Commission decides, I believe charities have a moral imperative to at least consider divestment from fossil fuels and other socially harmful industries, beyond those causes that are seen to directly conflict with their mission. We might not be the largest sector in the UK, but we command £92bn of assets. That’s indeed significant. The Church of England has made the decision to divest from fossil fuels, as has my faith group, Quakers in Britain.

Personally, I try to practice what I preach. I keep my savings with Triodos – a bank that only makes investments that have a positive impact on the world – and have opened a Triodos Junior ISA for my daughter. Beyond my personal decisions, however, it’s also important to me to work for employers that share my values, and I expect many of my peers feel the same.

We should think about our place in the world, and expect to be challenged

Without a proper focus on corporate responsibility, we can expect more scandals, more bad publicity and more difficult questions from the public.

We’ve already seen the environmental question impact charities this year, with the criticism directed towards Comic Relief for the plastic waste created by Red Nose Day.

Will we continue to lag behind businesses and faith groups, or will we step up and show leadership on one of the most critical challenges of modern times?

After all, as Greta Thunberg has said, “Change is coming, whether you like it or not”.

A different way to think about fundraising career paths

This blog post caught my eye recently. It focuses on the dilemma faced by software engineers who want to develop their careers but see management as the only way to gain increased salary and status. Many of them hate the idea of becoming people managers.

I think many fundraisers probably feel the same.

The blog posits the following statement:

“Management is not a promotion; management is a change of profession.”

Whenever I’ve moved into a management role or seen a colleague do so, I’ve interpreted it as a promotion. It’s hard not to, given that it usually comes with a pay rise, and often access to a higher level of status and formal influence within the organisation.

However, I agree with the statement. A good fundraiser will not necessarily make a good manager, and all new managers need training in management skills.

I’m not saying that managers don’t merit their privileges; they have a high level of responsibility and expectation placed upon them. But what about the individual contributors who don’t want to manage people? Shouldn’t there also be a track for them that also leads to higher pay and formally recognised influence?

How can we develop the careers of fundraisers who don’t want to be managers?

In my experience the standard fundraising career track goes something like: officer–>senior officer–>middle manager–>head of department–>director.

This means that excellent individual contributors–such as expert major donor fundraisers–will see their careers reach a ceiling far sooner than those who are suited to the management track. It feels inevitable that the most ambitious of these individuals will get frustrated and either move into a different field or progress into a management role for which they are ill suited. (This is a point that has been persuasively argued on the Veritus Group blog).

This seems to me to be a tragedy – especially given the sector’s difficulty in recruiting and retaining excellent fundraisers.

Dual career tracks: a lesson from the tech industry

Several software companies have recognised this problem and built dual career tracks for managers and individual contributors. Employees can achieve equal status and salary regardless of the track they choose, up to a certain level.

Good examples (where the companies have made their frameworks publicly available) are Rent the Runway and Songkick.

Although these are from a very different sector and cultures they raise several points that I think we as fundraisers should consider:

  • Leadership isn’t just for managers: individual contributors are expected to show leadership in terms of developing junior employees, and to be able to communicate clearly to non-technical stakeholders.
  • At the highest level, individual contributors are expected to demonstrate thought leadership through verbal presentations and written work.
  • For those on the management track, management skills are categorised as technical skills.
  • Managers should have the same technical abilities as a high-level contributor. This is vital for the manager’s credibility (although it’s acknowledged that after a certain point of seniority this detailed knowledge is no longer practical).

There is still a ceiling to those who do not progress to management, as it’s unlikely that an employee could reach Director or CEO level without selecting the management track.

However, I particularly like the fact that these frameworks view management as a discipline in its own right. It requires its own set of competencies and specific training. I also like the fact that these frameworks present management as a discipline that’s equal, but not superior to, individual contribution.

The career “pendulum”

The Charity.wtf blog I referred to at the start of this post suggests an alternative career pathway: the “pendulum” through which an individual switches between contributor and manager posts throughout their career. The benefits outlined by the author include:

  • Managers always have recent technical experience, which makes them better at their job and maintains their credibility.
  • Contributors gain management skills such as influencing, building consensus, and having a better understanding of how organisations work. These skills improve their performance.

I think this is a fascinating idea, but wonder if our cultures would allow for this back-and-forth. Would charity hiring managers view this type of CV with interest or would they worry that it demonstrates a lack of commitment?

Why not be more flexible with the career paths of fundraisers?

I think we would all agree that all fundraisers are invaluable, regardless of their role or seniority. We need the Community & Events Fundraiser just as much as the Head of Direct Marketing. But do our frameworks–and our expectations of how fundraisers will develop–always reflect this? What more can we do to ensure that we keep our best and most ambitious fundraisers without forcing them into inappropriate management roles?

I would love to know if there are any fundraising organisations with dual career tracks; please get in touch if so!