Oxfam has fought hard to make so many disadvantaged people’s lives better since it was founded in 1942. For over 75 years it has earnt a huge and well-respected reputation for humanitarian intervention and development aid.
It is the 4th largest charity in the UK and by far the biggest when it comes to overseas aid.
After all the fabulous work Oxfam and its workforce and volunteer network have delivered over the years, they have been rocked by mistakes and errors of judgement that are beginning to threaten its very existence.
It would be bad enough if the focus was only on the huge global management failures, but its Oxfam’s integrity that is on the line.
Mistakes can usually be forgiven, but once trust is lost, it is extremely hard to recover.
Last year April, United Airlines unceremoniously dragged a passenger off one of their flights, despite him having done nothing to merit this unacceptable forcible removal.
The ensuing global condemnation which followed the release of the unspeakable video footage did huge damage to their brand and reputation.
But they have now just about recovered. It was seen as a huge but isolated error of judgement, not a total lack of integrity.
United went to great lengths, both internally and externally, to convince its stakeholders and the public at large that they were serious about changing their culture for the better.
Bell Pottinger, one of Britain’s most prestigious PR firms, disappeared in a flash after revelations of a total breakdown in trust.
They were being paid £100,000 a month by their client, Oakbay Capital, (the holding company of the wealthy, powerful and much tainted Gupta family), to run a social media and PR campaign in South Africa focused on “economic apartheid”.
This was not just an administrative shortcoming, this was seen to be “racially charged” by design, and this lack of morality could never be forgiven, especially as they are in the PR industry.
Bell Pottinger collapsed in September of last year and has now already disintegrated and gone.
The National Health Service (NHS) has been at the centre of huge performance issues for months now.
Its performance is savaged in the media, but hardly anyone challenges its values. We know that it is underperforming, but we still feel that the NHS cares. They are still trusted despite the ongoing challenges.
The NHS remains in a negative spotlight and the stories of missed deadlines and poor performance continue, but its integrity has not been questioned.
The private sector is dominated by ‘performance driven’ cultures and the public sector along with the third sector, are perceived to have ‘values led’ cultures.
The distinction comes from businesses that were primarily focussed on delivering profits for their shareholders, and the public sector and charities perceived overriding focus on providing services and care for the communities they serve.
Historically, those who were employed in the private sector, tended to earn significantly more than those who chose to work in the public sector, and those who chose to work for charities earned even less.
Those who worked for charities wanted to make a positive difference, but also wanted to ‘give back’.
For many years, this was semblance of truth to this, but in the main, this is no longer the case today.
No matter where you choose to work, everyone has to be both values led, and performance driven today.
Recent research from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) has provocatively confirmed that the reality is that public sector pay is now well ahead of private sector pay across Britain.
More is being asked of all workers in all sectors, and the strong implementation of management measures and controls have pushed all to become more efficient.
It has certainly paid off in many industries and sectors. But the practice and discipline of management alone cannot instil and preserve the right values and attitudes.
Management by definition, is inherently far too focused on performance, and sometimes at the cost of the stated values of the organisation.
It’s leadership that drives values and attitudes.
The focus of leadership must be Vision, People, Teams and Culture.
This is what will drive the right behaviour and set the right moral tone across everything that is accomplished.
It must never become just about the ‘numbers’.
The business of business is no longer just business, no matter what sector you work in today.
The global financial crash in 2007, exposed some financial institutions that were guilty of malpractice, selling duff products and services, and showing little care for the customers they burnt.
Governments and regulators have worked hard to force these financial institutions to change their cultures with varying degrees of success.
Thousands of risk managers, internal auditors and compliance officers have been employed right across the world, alongside industrial strength processes and new constraining procedures in a real attempt to force, especially the global banks, to become more values led.
In retrospect, regulators with their sanctions and their dogmatic and expensive mandatory interventions have only been able to go so far. As ever, it’s leaders that shape and change culture, not changes in strategy, structure or new processes.
This brings us back around to the problems of Oxfam’s own making.
All charities are desperate for any publicity that they can get, but Oxfam have found themselves to be headline news in the worst possible way.
This is one of the UK’s largest and most successful charities with a solid history of providing exemplary support and services in some of the most difficult and scariest places on earth.
As we all know and have seen with the likes of Bell Pottinger in the private sector, reputations can take years to build and just a few moments of badness to lose.
Despite all the brilliant work performed by the vast majority of the 5000 people that work for them worldwide and the 27,000 volunteers, Oxfam’s survival is at risk.
Most of us come into contact with Oxfam on our local high street, where many of the volunteers turn out to run their 630 shops.
This selling of unwanted gifts, second hand clothes and books that have already been well read, generates around £100 million pounds a year for good causes.
In the tailwind of the infamous Harvey Weinstein scandal, which unveiled sexual abuses in Hollywood, and then quickly spread to inflame and spotlight sexual wrongdoings in both media and politics, and is now escalating in the world of sport.
Not many thought it would soon infiltrate and engulf such a rock-solid charity as Oxfam.
Horrific stories of what took place after the terrible earthquake in Haiti in 2010 have come to light of Oxfam’s employees preying on the blighted victims for sex.
One witness described “full on Caligula orgy’s”. With prostitution being illegal in Haiti and strong rumours of underage girl’s being present, things could not be worse.
This has highlighted a much broader issue of abuse by aid workers and peacekeepers who have been sent to disaster areas and war zones. The local and vulnerable communities have been preyed upon by those who were supposed to be there to help them.
When a backlash spreads from a single organisation to engulf an industry, sentiment can change instantly.
As we have recently seen with global brands like Volkswagen and Uber, there is rarely strong public smoke without some internal fire.
When the emissions scandal first erupted, Volkswagen went into denial. This not only enraged the public but also focused the minds of the investigative media and before long, more evidence came out followed by the whistle blowers and eventually came the resignations.
Oxfam unfortunately is in danger of following a similar path.
After even deadlier and better-informed headlines appeared, it wasn’t long before Oxfam’s deputy chief executive, Penny Lawrence, who ran the charities international program when the disgraceful incidents in Haiti occurred, resigned.
The danger now is all those voices that have long taken issue with the UK’s spending and support of international aid, are making their voices heard. The UK has had an ongoing commitment to spend an impressive 0.7% of its national income on aid.
Some would see this as extravagant during a time of austerity. But I, and many others would argue that this is not only the right thing for wealthier nations to do, but it makes the UK a global leader in the world of development, and adds massive value to the brands and the values of the UK.
As the UK retreats from Europe, it needs to be careful that it doesn’t also retreat from the rest of the world which it states it wants to do more business with.
Oxfam, and the charity sector as a whole, are being rightly challenged on maximum transparency, better policing of their people and to implement far more robust policies and procedures. This will look to prevent anything like this occurring again.
These demands are obviously important, but by no means the only thing that needs to be changed.
Fundamental sustainable change, requires a cultural change in Oxfam, and this must commence at the top.
In order to refresh and transform the inappropriate attitudes and behaviours, this needs to start by refreshing the top team.
Removing all those responsible is an obvious and necessary move, but just as essential, is removing those that do not exemplify the values of the organisation. This more than anything else, will kick start the essential change in the culture needed.
Many of the banks that had people whom misbehaved in a manner that would eventually lead to the global financial crash, were forced to make deep and telling changes to their culture. Most started with the top brass, but have had to continue to purge their firms, being far less tolerant with bad attitudes and wrong values.
This has been far more effective than all the plethora of new rigorous risk management and compliance procedures, which are also vital but nowhere near enough on their own.
Bad apples always infiltrate and influence others and sometimes with crushing consequences.
There will be no hiding place for the top executives at Oxfam, it cannot be only one person responsible for the inappropriate culture.
Normally, blame on its own doesn’t actually achieve anything. There are always far deeper underlying issues that need addressing, alongside changing out the underperformers.
But this is very different, when the moral compass of an organisation points in the wrong direction, then it is definitely time for a change in the corporate culture.
I’ve yet to see that realised without wholesale changes in the leadership team. This is not with a microscopic focus on performance, but a much closer examination of whether the inherent values of the individuals concerned match the stated values of the organisation.
Those who have demonstrated a mismatch, should be encouraged to deploy their skills elsewhere, no matter how well they have delivered their financial targets.
The top executives at Oxfam have started to do the right thing by coming out and taking responsibility, apologising and at least one of them has stood down, but they were not quick enough off the mark.
Some bad missteps, like allowing some of their employees to resign and quietly disappear, may come back to haunt them. Especially, as some of these have now turned up at other charities, who were not made aware of their past sexual misconduct.
A lack of transparency can be suicidal to trust and must be avoided.
Oxfam’s strong reputation has bought them the time that was never afforded to the likes of Bell Pottinger, but the clock is ticking as more sordid stories appear daily.
With our continuous focus on Leadership, Oxfam must accept that:
But, when individual reputations are at stake they can get in the way of fixing the organisations reputation, as the executives fight hard to save their own careers.
The Economist reported this week that police in Guatemala arrested Álvaro Colom, a former president, and most of his former cabinet in a fraud case involving a new bus system in the capital. The accused include Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, a former finance minister who is the chairman of Oxfam International.
The real and huge challenge for the likes of Oxfam, is that no matter how long lasting and worthy your past deeds are, as Henry Ford famously said, “You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do”.
The best leaders always know when best to go, others require encouragement.
Reputations don’t die – people destroy them.
I write regular blog posts about SPIKE and my take on leadership issues globally. If you enter your name and email below I’ll send you my fortnightly update which also includes news of SPIKE events I’m speaking at
Originally published at www.carayol.com