Embedding policies in charities: What’s the ‘tone at the top’?

Following the “Sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector” report published in July 2018 uncovering a variety of abuses in the International aid sector, the below article highlights a number of common themes all charity trustees and managers should be aware of.

About the author

+44 (0)20 7556 1411

Embedding policies in the culture and fabric of an organisation

Charities are founded on aims and objectives which provide a focal point for how they carry out their activities. Policies are required to ensure that these activities are carried out in accordance with applicable laws and regulations. The Committee’s report found that NGOs had policies covering safeguarding and whistleblowing but because they were not embedded in the culture of those NGOs, they were not always referred to when dealing with allegations.

Culture in any organisation is fostered by the ‘tone at the top’. Trustees should establish the significance of such policies, through consideration of them in their decision making. For example, Trustees need to make sure that the implementation of risk management and operational policies cuts across the strategy and feeds into operational plans for delivery, when considering organisational strategy.

This in turn, empowers managers to embed processes for compliance in workplans, creating an environment where compliance is part of delivery. This type of approach allows charities to respond to changes in regulatory and legal environments more easily, ensuring policies become ‘living’ and proactive, rather than reactive.

Questions to ask:

  • How are my charity’s policies implemented?
  • Are policies and the systems to implement them seen as an integral part of our work or just a box to be ticked?
  • When was the last time significant policies, such as safeguarding and whistleblowing were reviewed and updated?
  • Do the policies that my charity has reflect the operational realities of how we work?


Understanding the logistical and cultural context in which policies are applied

The Committee identified instances where the systems designed to comply with organisational policies were not effective and in the case of whistleblowing, were not always accessible to those who may need to use them. Further, it was also found that NGOs working in overseas locations had not properly considered whether the policies and processes were appropriate in the cultural context of some locations.

The application of a cross-cutting approach to the delivery of a charity’s strategy, provides opportunities to identify areas where current policies may not be viable, either due to the availability of resources for those who may need to access or apply the systems, or where using such a system may give rise to other issues, due to the cultural context. 

Through identification of shortfalls in resources or cultural barriers to systems, charities can properly consider areas where alternative approaches or further investment is needed to ensure that they can have the greatest impact.

Questions to ask:

  • Do we work in locations or with communities where application of our policies may conflict with the culture?
  • Can all those (staff and, where relevant, beneficiaries) who need to access our whistleblowing and other systems properly access and implement those systems?


Discussing issues openly and transparently with donors

The evidence received by the Committee from NGOs in the aid sector, highlighted pressure to reduce overhead costs as a key reason why safeguarding resources were not properly funded and hence ineffective. The Committee stated clearly that “[d]onors cannot expect aid organisations to integrate safeguarding into their programmes without the resource to do so.” It went on to emphasise the importance of NGOs being open and transparent with donors about the issues they face to ensure that there is investment to help the sector tackle safeguarding issues.

For the wider charity sector, this highlights how charities must engage their donors in honest discussions about the resources they need and why they are needed. Public focus on how charitable funds are used has never been greater and the sector needs to lead the conversation in an open and transparent way, rather than being defensive. Charities are on the front line and therefore best placed to educate donors about where funds are needed most. It does the sector a disservice to hide true costs within budgets to meet donors’ expectations.

Questions to ask:

  • What is my charity’s process for reviewing funding applications?
  • Are we actively engaging with our funders to provide funding for the resources we require?
  • Are we having open conversations with funders to explain the challenges we face?


Reporting serious incidents

The Committee received evidence showing that quite often NGOs were failing to fully report the details of allegations and incidents to donors and regulators, for fear that the act of reporting would damage their reputation and make it more difficult to access funding or be the subject of regulatory action. The Committee was clear that The Department for International Development (DfiD) will not penalise organisations for reporting but cautioned that penalties will be applied to those who fail to properly respond to incidents. The Charity Commission, citing statistics relating to charities working with vulnerable beneficiaries, indicating that the number of reports it receives is far lower than it would expect, given the environments in which charities work.

Questions to ask:

  • Have all incidents been reported to senior management and/or the Board?
  • If not, why not? Does a low level of reports indicate that my charity’s reporting systems are not working effectively?

Charity trustees have a duty to foster a culture which does not look to apportion blame but rather to identify where and how things have gone wrong and apply the lessons learned. This creates a culture which empowers staff to report concerns that they have to their superiors and the Board. This also means that when reporting incidents to the Commission and other stakeholders, the charity can clearly demonstrate its commitment to managing the risk of future incidents.

If you have questions about any of the issues raised in this article, send in your enquiry to our expert team by completing the form below, or call 0207 556 1200 to speak to our charity team.  

Please verify yourself above.
Please complete all required fields above.
You might also be interested in… International non-governmental organisations (INGOs).

It’s fair to say, an INGO's lot is not a simple one. Mastering the above is your key to success in an evolving sector. To pull it off, consider working with a partner like us. Take advantage of our experience to help you tackle those challenges and use our network to hear about the latest sector regulations and developments.

Meaningful advice for organisations in international development

A team works best when everyone gets the most from working together. We take the time to understand your unique history, structure and charitable focus, including visiting you overseas to gain a first-hand no-frills picture of your working environment. We know there’s more to supporting you than technical advice.

  • Practical support for INGOs 
  • Audit and accounting
  • Management and governance structures
  • Financial systems and controls, including working with in-country finance teams
  • Risk management and monitoring
  • Working with partner organisations
  • Tax and VAT services
  • HR and employment support for staff overseas
  • Professional grant audits

When it comes to compliance and measuring impact, donor-funded grants go under a magnifying glass. And when funding and project management is this complex, you need specialist support to handle the scrutiny. That’s where we come in.

Our dedicated charity and not-for-profit team works with various funders of the international NGO sector. These include USAID, the European Commission, the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Swedish International Development Coordination Agency (SIDA). Understandably these institutions need to be sure their money is spent as intended, reasonably and legally. Hence the grant audit.

Transparent accountable reporting

Work with our specialists to put in place robust controls and audit-ready financial reporting. Because we know what each funder needs to see, we can recommend best practice and pinpoint where you can add value. Better still, we have the knowledge and network to organise grant audits across the globe.

Worldwide tax advice

Access an impressive range of services and industry expertise around the world through our membership of PrimeGlobal, an association of independent accounting firms across 90 countries in regions including Africa, Asia and South America.

Download these useful resources

The Lifecycle of a global assignment
Buzzacott INGO Services
The data security Issues facing charitable organisations
Retention of Accounting and Records
Pros and cons of using a trading subsidiary
Grant Audits
Fundraising events: VAT and Direct Tax
Buzzacott New Manager Pathway Brochure 2018
What is mediation?
What is coaching?