Bullying in the charity sector and implications for leadership

ACEVO and Centre for Mental Health’s report on bullying in the charity sector does not make comfortable reading, writes Vicky Browning, ACEVO CEO. But that’s why it matters 

In plain sight: workplace bullying in charities and the implications for leadership is the second report we have released following reports about bullying, abusive and exploitative behaviour taking place in some charities that came to light last year.

When we released Leading with values last July and recommended research to be carried out into bullying in the charity sector, I was not necessarily thinking that ACEVO would be the one to do it. One of ACEVO’s most important roles is to champion the role of civil society leaders and the role and impact they and their organisations have in public life. A report on workplace bullying in the charity sector would inevitably lead to negative news articles and uncomfortable conversations.

But ACEVO’s vision is to see civil society leaders making the biggest possible difference, and leaders cannot be at their best, cannot create the biggest impact, if they are being bullied. Nor do we want to see leaders who appear to create a big difference but do so using bullying behaviour. It is therefore clear to me that this research falls firmly in line with ACEVO’s mission, vision and values.

Some of the report is difficult reading. We made a conscious decision, prompted by our partner Centre for Mental Health, to use a lot of direct quotes from the people that responded to the survey. We did this because many people feel that their experiences have not been recognised before, that the bullying was their fault, and we wanted to change that.

We also think that using personal accounts as part of the research helps to dispel the myth that “this isn’t really an issue, is it?” The report doesn’t tell us about prevalence – about how widespread this issue is within our sector, or how that compares with other sectors. But it does tell us about impact and the systems that create this. Both of these things tell me that whether we are better or worse than other sectors is a red herring: there are things we have identified that could prevent people from experiencing harm and we should be doing them.

It’s been a tough few years for the charity sector, but the same is true of many other institutions. Universities, the legal profession, politics, banking, media, the arts: behaviour that used to be tacitly accepted is being called out. If we want better charity workplaces then one of the things organisations like ACEVO need to do is push back against the idea that people with malicious intent or who exhibit bad behaviour don’t work for charities. This is not true. We were built in the same society, with the same societal norms, as every other workplace in this country. When we recruit new employees they don’t declare themselves a bully in the interview. Our workers are also entitled to the same legal protections as any other employee. Bullying occurs in every sector, but we wrote this report because we want the charity sector to take the lead on tackling it.

I understand that this research comes on top of recent calls from ACEVO to prioritise diversity, to think about how your actions impact climate change – even to create period-friendly workplaces. It’s understandable if CEOs feel overwhelmed by the scale of it all. I find it helpful not to think of these things as different issues but as one issue under the banner of creating inclusive, well workplaces.

If you are a CEO reading this blog thinking that your workplace already has a safe culture, that’s brilliant: there is nothing you need to change internally and this report just marks an opportunity to remind your colleagues that bullying is unacceptable, and talk about steps they can take if they experience it in the future.

However, for those leaders I ask: are there other charities, funders, partners where it is an open secret that bullying is going on? What is our role in calling out behaviour in other charities? Should we decline to work with them? Refuse to invite them to speak at our events? Refuse to promote their charity’s material? Would these actions be more harmful to those the charity supports than to the bully? These are tough questions that I don’t have the answer to yet, but I would like to explore further with members who would be open to having these discussions with me.

ACEVO is committed to working on this issue for years to come; we know this report on its own is just an important first step. The next steps are to develop programmes and support that will help the thousands of charity leaders who also want to build a stronger, safer sector.

There are already a lot of brilliant policies and people working to achieve these goals: this includes the cross-sector work that’s been done in the last 18 months since the media reports were first published. However now I have read our latest report, now I have read the experiences, I feel a responsibility to do more. We won’t always get it right but we will try to learn from any mistakes we make. Change won’t be fast and it won’t be easy but I believe it is possible.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

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