In September 2018, we responded to a consultation hosted by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) which was developing a set of ethical principles for the charity sector. The aim was to provide an overarching framework for voluntary organisations to guide decision-making, good judgement and conduct.
Endorsement of the principles is voluntary, but all charities are encouraged to reflect on the principles in their work and decision-making. You can find the published set of ethical principles for the charity sector on the NCVO website.
We welcome the NCVO’s consultation on a set of principles to support charities, their governing bodies, and those who work and volunteer in and with them in recognising and resolving ethical issues and conflict.
We support the NCVO’s work to establish a sector-driven set of principles that reflects the values shared across the charity sector regarding safeguarding and conduct at work. It is important that charities own the challenge of safeguarding their staff and beneficiaries and take responsibility for resolving the issues discussed at the recent safeguarding summits.
In developing our response to the proposed code of ethics, we think that greater clarity would be welcome in relation to the following issues:
- As your introduction to the code acknowledges, while codes of ethics generally focus on the behaviour of individuals, this code is formulated for an organisational context. On this basis, a title such as “ethical principles” or “statement of ethical principles” would, in our view, more accurately reflect the status of the document and avoid confusion about how it aligns with existing codes of practice such as the fundraising code.
- Additionally, we note that the code of ethics specifically relates to “safeguarding and wider conduct at work”. This could usefully be included in the title of the document to ensure the scope is clear, as ethics apply to a range of practices beyond these areas.
Definitions and scope
This section says the code “is complimentary to existing codes such as the Charity Governance Code".
We recommend that the document also references the Code of Fundraising Practice alongside the Charity Governance Code as a key set of standards for the way charities work with staff and volunteers.
We would welcome further dialogue with NCVO to ensure that as far as possible there is consistency in what is expected of charities in any codes where safeguarding and wider conduct at work is covered, including the Code of Fundraising Practice.
Understandably, there is considerable emphasis put on beneficiaries as a key interest group to be safeguarded. The document rightly highlights that this focus on beneficiaries is not absolute (“Sometimes charities will need to balance potentially conflicting interests, for example between beneficiaries and the wider public, including donors.”). However, in our view this wording is insufficiently strong in emphasising that other legal requirements or interests may in some cases override delivering public benefit. In the context of fundraising, we have some concerns that a “beneficiaries first” approach may have unintended consequences in implying that the end always justifies the means. We suggest an addition such as the following: “The requirement to meet the needs of beneficiaries is not absolute and does not override other legal obligations and standards.”
The code of ethics draft suggests that charities should “state clearly who their beneficiaries are”. This point could usefully be expanded to say where and in what context charities should state who their beneficiaries are.
We welcome the proposal to ask charities to take into account beneficiaries views on their operations but suggest that this be widened to include members of the public more generally. In some cases, the fact that the beneficiary is dependent on services from the charity may influence their response or prevent them from speaking freely, so consideration should be given by charities to how to mitigate this risk, for example by seeking views through an independent intermediary rather than directly or by allowing beneficiaries to submit views anonymously.
In the section on openness, we suggest that “complaints” is expanded to “complaints and concerns”, to reflect the fact that not all issues are immediately recognised as a failing by those who report them.
Where the code mentions publishing a “complaints procedure” we would advocate that this is expanded to a “complaints and whistleblowing procedure” to address the barriers that internal staff may encounter in reporting concerns. This requirement was added to the Code of Fundraising Practice in 2017.
Under “right to be safe”, it isn’t clear how the point about wellbeing and mental health relates to this section. We would suggest that the section be called “Right to a safe and healthy environment” to make this connection clear.