The Oxfam sexual abuse and exploitation scandal raises numerous questions about accountability in the charity sector.
Obviously, the primary concern is the safety of the vulnerable (like the women exploited in Haiti). But the whole sad affair touches on another central concern in charity governance: serious incident reporting.
The Charity Commission requires charities to report serious incidents. A serious incident is described as “adverse event, actual or alleged, which results in harm to a charity’s work, beneficiaries or reputation; the loss of a charity’s money or assets, or damage to a charity’s property”.
What isn’t up for debate is that Oxfam did indeed make a serious incident report to the Commission in August 2011 about an “ongoing internal investigation into allegations of misconduct by staff members involved in their Haiti programme”.
In a statement reacting to the recent press reports, the Commission said this report didn’t mention all of the details and “our approach to this matter would have been different had the full details that have been reported been disclosed to us at the time.”
But just how much detail does the Commission require to ask follow-up questions? Speaking to AccountingWEB, the Charity Finance Group’s head of policy Andrew O’Brien said Oxfam’s report “does give you questions to ask”.
“It references reported instances. You’re never going to get an annual report and account with big red flashing lights on it saying ‘this is a big problem’. That’s not its role, it’s there to give a representation of the financial information and the activities of the charities and give the reader the ability to follow up.”
O’Brien questions whether more reporting or more detail is what’s needed. Charities just need to do it right, and then it’s the Commission’s job to ask the right questions. “Are we using the information in the right way?” he asked.
“The Charity Commission said it didn’t get the full picture, but there was enough in those reports to ask the question if they wanted to. We don’t need more reporting. If we use the annual report and accounts effectively, we can better hold organisations to account. This could’ve been highlighted much sooner.”
As far as O’Brien is concerned, Oxfam’s reporting wasn’t substandard (not to say that the behaviour of some its workers wasn’t abominable). The charity’s accountability reports openly acknowledge the internal investigations and the increasing number of reports around sexual abuse.
That’s not to say, O’Brien said, there isn’t an issue with underreporting. The Commission has said in the past that the sector is dogged by underreporting. For instance, there were 2,182 serious incident report to the Commission in 16/17. As O’Brien observed on the CFG’s blog: “This is quite low when you consider that there are around 170,000 charities on the Charity Commission register.
“This would indicate that there is only one serious incident per 77 charities every year. This doesn’t seem likely. For example, research indicates that fraud alone is costing charities over £2bn a year – and this will be spread across thousands of organisations.”
Over half (55%) of serious incident reports relate to “safeguarding issues” according to the Commission. Combined with underreporting, it’s likely that the Oxfam scandal is indeed “the tip of the iceberg” as Priti Patel, the former international development secretary, put it.
It’s a reality that Oxfam acknowledged in it’s own accountability report for 2013/14. The charity wrote: “Underreporting is recognised within the sector as the major barrier to tackling sexual exploitation and abuse in delivering humanitarian and development programmes.”
In part, according to the CFG’s O’Brien, underreporting is caused by uncertainty over what exactly constitutes a “serious incident”. Or, more specifically, what’s serious enough to be reported and who should report it.
The commission’s guidance is clear that the responsibility for reporting serious incidents rests with the charity’s trustees. Although the Commission adds: “In practice, this may be delegated to someone else within the charity, such as an employee or the charity’s professional advisers.”
The Charity Commission has a table of incidents to help guide on this front. The Commission recommends providing the following information in your serious incident report:
Who you are and your connection to the charity.
The authority you have to report on behalf of the charity’s trustees.
Who in the trustee body is aware of the incident, for example all or only the Chair.
What happened and when the charity first became aware of it.
Action being taken to deal with the incident and prevent future problems.
Whether and when it was reported to the police or another regulator/ statutory agency (including official reference numbers).
Media handling lines you may have prepared.
About Francois Badenhorst
I'm AccountingWEB's business editor. Feel free to get in touch with comments, tips, scoops or irreverent banter.