6 ways trustees must lead on safeguarding

1 May 2019
Author: Rose Caldwell

When abuse or sexual exploitation happens in organisations whose mission is to help the world’s most vulnerable, it challenges our belief in these organisations and in society itself.

Any UK NGO has a duty of care to those involved in, or affected by, its activities and have to take steps to manage the risk of causing harm. Trustees play a crucial role in setting the culture, behaviour and priorities of their organisation. 

Last year’s media revelations around safeguarding made us all review what procedures and policies we have in place, and ask ourselves if we are doing enough. In October, we committed to driving up safeguarding standards in the sector and share best practice at the Department for International Development’s Safeguarding Summit. 

To better support trustees and ensure change happens from the top, the Bond cross-sector working group has created Good governance for safeguarding: A guide for UK NGO boards. This practical guide is for trustees of all international NGOs registered as charities in the UK, regardless of their size or whether or not they are directly involved in programme delivery.

As co-chair of this group, I know that we as a sector must not rest until we have taken all possible steps to prevent sexual exploitation and harassment. We must be respond effectively when abuse does happen, putting survivors first.

Our guide explores six ways that trustees should take the lead on safeguarding. If trustees follow this guidance, they will take a significant step in playing their part in protecting the people who do their organisation’s life-changing work.

1. Set the right tone

Organisations may have excellent safeguarding policies, procedures and systems in place, but the culture of the organisation must also create an environment where people feel comfortable raising concerns or complaints. Staff need to know these concerns will be dealt with appropriately and confidently. The culture should be one where those who raise concerns are appropriately treated and those responsible are held to account.

The CEO and the executive team are responsible for shaping the culture of the organisation through their day-to-day management. Nevertheless, our guide provides key actions that trustees should take to ensure the organisation’s culture is actively supporting its vision, mission and values. These actions include appointing designated safeguarding leads at executive level and defining the role of trustees in setting and monitoring organisation culture and putting this on their agenda.

2. Reduce risk

Trustees retain overall responsibility for risk management and defining the level of risk they are prepared to accept. The approach to managing risks arising from safeguarding is as important as managing all other risks. 

Some key actions from our guide for trustees include ensuring that the organisation has assessed its own safeguarding risk profile. They all need to put in place and regularly review the organisation’s process for identifying, mitigating, prioritising, escalating, managing, and learning from risks.

3. Encourage speaking up

All UK NGOs should have mechanisms in place that make it easy for victims, survivors or witnesses to speak up in relation to actual, suspected or potential harm.

Trustees need to ensure that there are policies and procedures in place that encourage issues to be raised, investigated and acted upon, from internal whistleblowing to safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. 

4. Investigate complaints

An executive team or trustees can’t be in all places at all times to ensure that the systems and protections that have been put in place are being appropriately followed. This often only comes to light through actual incidents, complaints and concerns being investigated. 

It is trustees’ responsibility to ensure that the organisation has policies and procedures in place which ensure that any concerns raised are investigated thoroughly, robustly, fairly and sensitively. Our recommendations for policies and procedures includes defining how disclosures, allegations and complaints should be dealt with and clarity around the respective roles and responsibilities of individuals.

5. Support survivors 

Trustees should ensure that the organisation adopts a survivor-centred approach. This is one where the wellbeing and the wishes of the survivor of an incident are put at the heart of any actions taken. Trustees need to make it clear that they champion a survivor-led approach and to clearly articulate what this means in theory and in practice, including how it will be implemented. 

This requires a measure of flexibility, as the help and support needed must be assessed for each individual on a case-by-case basis, and promptly. 

6. Ensure openness and accountability

It is important that trustees consider how their organisation can achieve appropriate transparency and accountability in relation to safeguarding, while taking account of the sensitivities of the subject matter and the rights and welfare of those affected. Our recommendations for boards include ensuring that all legal, regulatory and contractual reporting of safeguarding incidents is done in a timely manner.

Read Good governance for safeguarding: A guide for UK NGO boards.

Find out more about the safeguarding support Bond offers, including policy templates and safeguarding training.

About the author

Rose Caldwell profile
Concern Worldwide (UK)

Rose is executive director of Concern Worldwide (UK). A chartered accountant by training, she previously worked for the Refugee Housing Association.