Whistleblowing matters: why charities need to strengthen their whistleblowing culture

19 May 2020

At the start of the year, we at Protect conducted research into whistleblowing culture at mid to large sized charities. 

We knew safeguarding was very much on the sector’s agenda, but we wanted to know more about whistleblowing culture, and whether charities were creating an environment to help their staff speak up.

Our advice line handles around 3,000 cases each year from workers in all sectors seeking advice on wrongdoing they have seen or heard about within their organisation. We know from these cases that many charity workers do not feel safe about speaking up or are not confident their concerns will be listened to. 

Trust is still a difficult issue. In the last three years, calls to our advice line from the charity sector have risen from 12% of all cases in 2017 to 19% in 2019. We see this as a positive, as it suggests people are feeling more confident about speaking up. 

But there is still some way to go to encourage more workers to come forward, for them to feel safe about doing so, and for charities to change their approach and culture to facilitate whistleblowing.

The whistleblowing pilot

A successful round table in October last year kicked off the pilot with a panel debate attended by the Charity Commission and Lord Shinkwin, himself a former third sector whistleblower. We then invited charities to use our whistleblowing benchmark to assess whistleblowing culture and procedures. 

20 large charities took part, and the headline findings from the report found:

  • zero charities in the pilot monitored the risk of victimisation through feedback or aftercare process to monitor the wellbeing of staff who had raised concerns 
  • only 52% of charities differentiated between whistleblowing and grievances
  • 86% of charities fail to offer whistleblowing training to staff receiving and acting on whistleblowing concerns

Whilst we recognise our pilot is small in scale, the qualitative and detailed evidence reflects many of the issues we believe mid to large sized charities face. As we have seen in many high-profile revelations in the media, if staff are not listened to and concerns not acted on, very serious wrongdoing can continue.  

More needs to be done to build trust to speak up amongst workers – if little action is taken then there is a real danger that staff will stay silent.

The importance of trust

As a small charity ourselves, Protect has always been aware of the vital and good work charities do. Covid-19 has shone a light on the care and support the charity sector offers to so many. Trust and respect that had waned in the public eye has begun to be restored. 

However, Aidan Warner, communications manager at NCVO, has said, “People’s baseline expectation is that charities will step up and help out in a crisis, so we wouldn’t expect plaudit for that in itself. The challenge for the sector lies in maintaining higher levels of trust into the future.”

And it is on the issue of trust that we at Protect are keen to build on. Whilst the public may be viewing charities more positively, Protect want charities to change internally. It is vital staff feel safe and confident to speak up and that their concerns and complaints are handled well by staff who are trained to handle whistleblowing concerns. Training is key if a culture change in the sector is to happen.

The principles of a good whistleblowing culture should be adopted by all charities, regardless of size.  Smaller charities will argue they are worlds apart from the larger charities. Though they are different in terms of budgets and the lack of designated safeguarding and compliance teams, the principles of good whistleblowing processes apply to all. 

Protect wants to see a transformation in the sector and is here to help with the transformation.

 

Read Protect's report.

About the author

Andrew Pepper-Parsons
Protect

Andrew is the head of policy at Protect and has worked for the organisation for 13 years.