Could Oxfam's scandal cost international aid agencies?

How the Oxfam’s scandal is costing aid agencies?

The decision to give, or not to give your money to a particular charity is influenced by a host of factors, some tangible and others quite intangible. Sadly, Oxfam’s scandal will have made the decision easier for many people. A very recent UK study by the Charities Aid Foundation has shown that donations and sponsorships are already suffering as a consequence of these betrayals of trust. 

Trusting a charity to use your money in the way it was intended is a given and something international aid agencies continually strive to demonstrate. So, the downstream ramifications for everyone in the Charity sector, not just Oxfam, could be significant. I only hope it doesn’t become a default response that enables people who are ambivalent about donating to say no.

For New Zealanders we have to decide whether to support local or international charities. Many people don’t see the logic in supporting overseas charities when there is so much need at home. This is reflected in a Philanthropy NZ report showing less than 9% of giving goes to international charities. Of the total $1.373 billion donated to charities in 2014, $119.4 million was donated to international aid while the other 91.3% went to national charities.

In my own PR work I’m privileged to have worked with many major charities including Child Fund, the Salvation Army, SPCA, Child Rescue NZ, and Hospice New Zealand. A characteristic all of these organisations share is that they are powered by people with an honest and unerring commitment to helping others in dire circumstances. Actions by even one or two individuals will have profound ramifications on the thousands of other people who are working to raise funds or deliver aid. While no-one should ever donate money with blind faith my personal hope is that supporters will understand the complexity of these situations and not write-off a charity they have previously supported because the media has discovered an issue that they choose to sensationalise.    

Given the nature of the environments where international aid is delivered, it’s highly likely problems will be identified.  Its having measures to prevent the misuse of funds or abuse of power that are integral to the longevity and effectiveness of every charity, no matter how big or small they may be.  How an organisation responds to such issues is as much a mark of how worthy they are of our support as is the problem itself.

Child Rescue NZ, a charity dedicated to rescuing and protecting children from sexual slavery, continually manages the many risks that come with the territory they operate in. On the world stage they are a small organisation but the quality of their systems are no less rigorous.

“Transparency and trust is absolutely vital for our sustainability and growth,” says Child Rescue NZ CEO Jerram Watts. “Our donors are giving to us with absolute trust that their funds will be put to good use. So, we ensure they understand that 20 cents from every dollar they give will stay in New Zealand to support fundraising costs, and 80 cents will be sent to the frontline work they believe in.” 

Mr. Watts also says having trustworthy staff and good reporting processes in place is a must for all charities, including clear financial policies available for staff to see how funds are distributed. 

“While it’s important for donors to know where their money is going, it’s equally important for the organisation’s staff and volunteers to know they are working for an organisation with integrity, that feels the burden of stewarding donations well, and holds its staff and volunteers to the highest standard.”

When looking at a crisis from the outside we will never know the full story behind the headlines. For Oxfam who are a British institution, the betrayal of trust that many long-term supporters must have felt on hearing about senior aid workers misuse of power will be difficult to reverse. One hopes that the organisation has taken steps to prevent a repeat of any similar behavior. However, no-one can categorically say it will never happen again as people in unusual circumstances will not always behave as they should. It’s equally important to ensure the systems to identify and address any future issue are as robust as those in place to prevent them happening in the first place.


Tags: Public Relations crisis management transparency

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