I see NCVO (National Council for Voluntary Organisations)  – the hundred-year-old ‘umbrella’ charity supporting Britain’s non-profits – has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

With a damning investigation uncovering a deeply “toxic culture” and its board bluntly admitting it’s all true, there are several curious points that strike me from its reputational crisis.

“Structurally racist”

The independent ‘equality, diversity and inclusion’ investigation was carried out last year, with its findings revealed at that point only to NCVO staff. But it’s all come to the fore as the report has just been leaked to charity publication Third Sector, which has run a blistering exposé.

It lays bare how “staff from all marginalised groups experienced overt oppression [according to] the excoriating independent report into the umbrella body’s culture.” Apparently, there was “bullying and harassment on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation and disability happening with impunity at all levels, leaving members of minority groups feeling unsafe at work.”

NCVO’s Chair, Priya Singh, has responded by underlining “how shocked we were by the findings” and by acknowledging “that NCVO is a structurally racist organisation and the same is true for sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism and disablism.” Interim CEO Sarah Vilbert has described “a toxic culture which has caused so much pain to staff past and present.”

It’s not uncommon to hear such damning words from disgruntled employees – quite another thing for them to come from an organisation’s own leadership team.

Points that jump out

Five intriguing points jump out at me from this case:

1.  Charities behaving badly:  As with other incidences like this in the non-profit sector, it always feels surprising to me that people in organisations which are fundamentally geared towards social good can behave so badly. The Oxfam prostitution crisis of a couple of years back and sexual harassment allegations against managers at Save the Children made me think the same.

With his tongue half in his cheek, a non-profit sector contact of mine said to me only last week, about an unrelated matter, that “people expect private firms to behave badly, but charities to be the good guys”.

2.  Taking too much responsibility? Given the NCVO board’s harsh self-condemnation and abject apologies, on the matter of taking responsibility in a time of crisis, it’s seemingly scoring well. It’s not made excuses, been defensive or tried to brush its problems under the carpet (although I think this is exactly what it had previously been doing for years). These are actions you all-too-often do see in such crises – and always make them worse.

In fact, could the NCVO have gone too far in this direction, with language which is overly dramatic and self-censure that’s so brutal it will further damage staff morale and make any reputational recovery insurmountable?

3. New people in charge. I strongly suspect there’s a connection between the frankness of the words and the fact those saying them are newly appointed. NCVO’s Chair joined in October; the interim CEO stepped into the role only a month ago. It’s easier to condemn past failings when you weren’t previously in charge, and we so often see defensiveness and cover-ups when leaders haven’t changed.

4. What are they actually doing? Sure, there have been harsh words and frank admissions, but when it comes to what they say they’re actually doing about it – remembering the investigation concluded last year – the language and directness feel quite different.

NCVO’s interim CEO has said they’re providing “coaching and other forms of therapeutic support” and have “enabled protected time for EDI work and external facilitation to create safe spaces.” She’s talks of “changes to our governance structure, an equality impact assessment of our restructure, coaching for leaders and ensuring our new strategy is underpinned by cultural change.”

Is it just me, or does all that come across as management consultant gobbledygook?  I – for one – don’t really know what any of those things mean. If matters really have been as bad as the board has said, shouldn’t heads roll?  (NCVO’s former CEO resigned unexpectedly just last month, but the charity denies that was related).

5. False values? Finally, look at what the NCVO website proclaims to be the organisation’s values: inclusion, openness, collaboration and ambition!

Can these – particularly inclusion –  really be core to an organisation which is “structurally racist, homophobic, oppressive and bullying”?

It looks to me like NCVO has listed the values it would like to have – or perhaps that it feels look good on its website – rather than those it genuinely embodies.

And that would seem to make for shaky foundations for the mammoth task of rebuilding the organisation’s culture and reputation.


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