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How ethical is your charity?


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How ethical is your charity?

Julian Lomas

In January 2019 the NCVO published Charity Ethical Principles, a short document aiming “to support charities, their governing bodies and those who work and volunteer in and with them in recognising and resolving ethical issues and conflicts and make charities a safer place.” A bold ambition indeed, but one that all charities should be up for given the seemingly never-ending stream of scandals that have hit the sector in recent years!

The document is mercifully short and straightforward. It advances four basic ethical principles that all charities (regardless of size or sector) should be following:

  • Beneficiaries first - “charities have a responsibility to carry out their purposes for the public benefit. The interests of their beneficiaries and the causes they work for should be at the heart of everything charities and those who work and volunteer in and with them do.”

  • Integrity - “charities and those who work and volunteer in and with them should uphold the highest level of institutional integrity and personal conduct at all times.”

  • Openness - “charities should create a culture and space where donors and supporters, as well as the wider public, can see and understand how they work, how they deal with problems when they arise and how they spend their funds.”

  • Right to be safe - “every person who volunteers with, works for or comes into contact with a charity should be treated with dignity and respect, and feel that they are in a safe and supportive environment. All charities have a responsibility to create an inclusive culture that does not tolerate inappropriate, discriminatory, offensive or harmful behaviour towards any person who works for, volunteers with, or comes into contact with the charity. Charities should also be places where people’s wellbeing and mental health are valued and promoted, so that anyone working in the charity or coming into contact with the charity is encouraged to value and invest in their own health and wellbeing.”

It also provides some brief pointers for charities on what upholding these principles looks like and states that all charities should (in following the principles and in all their work):

  • respect every individual’s dignity and rights to privacy and confidentiality;

  • commit to challenging any instances of sexism, gender inequality and other power imbalances that leave some people at risk of harm; and

  • value and improve diversity in their governing bodies, workforce and volunteers.

I commend this publication to you but I also found myself wondering how it fits with the myriad of other publications in recent years on what might broadly be categorised as charity ethics, behavioural governance and/or organisational culture.

Building on the already extensive guidance on these matters from the Charity Commission and the Nolan Principles of Public Life, we have had in the last 2-3 years the new Charity Governance Code, a raft of ICSA guidance (including Cultural Markers in Charities, Charity Trustee Standards and Improving Charity Boardroom Behaviours) and much, much more.

There is no doubt that all these publications have value and merit. Some are legal documents to which charity trustees must have regard. Some are timely reminders of values and principles that should be core to being a charity. Some are more practical guides to how charities can benchmark themselves against accepted principles and/or standards and make improvements. But you’d be forgiven for getting lost in it all and not quite knowing where to turn to ensure your charity is upholding the highest ethical and governance standards.

Beyond the documents charity trustees must read (such as the Charity Commission’s guidance on Public Benefit), I would say you can’t go far wrong starting with the Charity Ethical Principles and the Charity Governance Code . The Ethical Principles complement the Code, focussing particularly on ethical behaviour in a light touch, practical way. The Code provides detailed recommended governance practice aligned to seven principles of: organisational purpose; leadership; integrity, decision making, risk and control; board effectiveness; diversity; and openness and accountability.

If you want to dive into more detailed, practical guidance then the ICSA guidance referred to above and the many other documents out there are well worth a look but be discerning:

  • Take care to chose a framework or approach that fits with the size, capacity and culture of your charity (“does it feel right?” is not a bad place to start). You don’t have to use them all!

  • Make sure you are focussing on issues that need attention within your charity; where are your weaknesses/improvement needs? Don’t waste time on areas of your organisation that are already performing well (recognising that continuous improvement is also important).

  • Don’t try and comply with everything in any given framework, code or approach. Of course, if it’s a legal or regulatory requirement you must comply. However, most of the documents I have referred to in this article are voluntary. If any particular recommendation or guidance isn’t right for your charity then, as long as you can explain why (without breaking the law or the overriding principles involved), that’s fine.

Most importantly, don’t let the myriad of guidance, framework and approaches that are now out there stop you from focusing on maintaining and improving your charity’s governance and promoting ethical behaviours and culture.

To find out more about any of the issues raised in this article, including the support and training we offer, please contact us at to arrange free initial telephone discussion.