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In Plain Sight: has anything changed almost 2 years on?

Blog by Kristiana Wrixon, head of policy at ACEVO.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

This time two years ago, ACEVO and the Centre for Mental Health were collating evidence on bullying in the charity sector to inform our In Plain Sight report on workplace bullying in charities and the implications for leadership. 524 people who had experienced bullying within the charity sector in the last five years completed an online survey detailing their experiences, while researchers also carried out 20 in-depth interviews and an extensive literature review. Using this evidence, the authors of the report shone a light on the harm caused by bullying and created a cycle that shows how a bullying culture can become established in a charity.

Infographic: How a bullying culture can become established in a charity

The report concluded with six recommendations, three of which can be actioned at individual charity level to create safer cultures in their own organisations. One recommendation was for the Charity Commission, asking it to publicly clarify its role and remit in responding to reports of bullying. The final two recommendations were for sector-wide initiatives, one to create a programme of culture change, and another to carry out more extensive research, in particular to focus on how discrimination and bullying intersect.

ACEVO did not want this to become ‘just another report’ so when In Plain Sight was released we committed to a series of actions. These actions were split into internal work that focused on role modelling good practice identified in the report, and external actions to begin the process of dismantling cultural and systems barriers. Those commitments were:

  1. Build relationships with groups that advocate and individuals that have experienced bullying in the workplace
  2. Engage with the upcoming review of the Charity Governance Code to reflect the report’s recommendations
  3. Produce a template role description for trustees and senior managers who lead on workplace wellbeing
  4. Build relationships with union representatives to get an understanding of the concerns of their members regarding bullying
  5. Liaise with the Charity Commission and other regulators, for example, the Health and Safety Executive and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, to provide clear guidance to charities about the different regulators’ roles in investigating workplace bullying
  6. Support and promote Mental Health First Aid’s Where’s Your Head At? Workplace Manifesto
  7. Develop a culture change programme that involves collective sectoral action to address bullying behaviour

A mixed picture of progress

Concerning commitment two, ACEVO has maintained good relationships with the people it worked with through the report’s development and who shared their time to steer its direction. We have also proactively engaged with individuals or groups speaking out against bullying within the charity sector in the last two years. Building relationships and working in partnership is the cornerstone of ACEVO’s advocacy work. If you are not connected on this topic, and you would like to be, please do get in touch with our head of policy.

Commitment three is completed, and the templates for these roles are available on our website here. With respect to the ‘Where’s Your Head At?’ manifesto, ACEVO signed up to this shortly after the report was released and promoted it to members and shared information with staff. ACEVO is a member of the Charity Governance Code steering group and was involved in last year’s review where we fed in findings from In Plain Sight. Changes were made to the Code’s principle on Integrity in late 2020 and details of the changes can be found on the Governance Code website. These include a new section on ensuring the right to be safe so that “everyone who comes into contact with a charity should be treated with dignity and respect and feel that they are in a safe and supportive environment”.

Our work on commitment five has been focused on meeting the report’s recommendation for the Charity Commission. About seven months after the report was released, we had made progress in discussions with the Charity Commission, however before anything was published there were significant staff changes at the Commission, closely followed by the beginning of the pandemic. We have resumed positive conversations in recent months and anticipate an update soon from the Commission on what it will do to meet the recommendation.

The two commitments on which ACEVO has made the least progress are building relationships with unions and developing a culture change programme. Ahead of the release of the report in 2019 and for some months after its release, we sought to engage with representatives from the unions with the largest charity sector membership. We didn’t get many responses, and only one union representative actively engaged with the work ahead of the release date and immediately after. However, considering most of my attempts to build relationships with unions were made 18 months ago, I recognise that this is an area worth revisiting again.

Developing a programme of cultural change was the most ambitious commitment that ACEVO made. In Plain Sight provided top-line suggestions about what such a programme should include with ideas including communication and awareness raising, infrastructure support for smaller charities, shared methodologies for evaluating workplace culture and training for leaders.

I have had several conversations with culture change experts since the report was released and realise now what I probably should have realised then, that fully developing such a programme would require expert support, and therefore additional funding. Once a programme was developed, we would also likely need further funding to run the programme. As we have not achieved further financial support, ACEVO has focused on embedding sessions on creating safe cultures at ACEVO member events. This has included sessions at our annual conference and regional member meetings. We are planning another three member events on the topic for summer 2021.

In addition to these actions, within ACEVO we have introduced a bi-annual staff survey that was designed in partnership with staff which includes questions about staff wellbeing and about bullying and discrimination.

While action has been slower than I would have liked, in part I think because I underestimated the resource required to achieve our stated aims, this has not deterred ACEVO from supporting its members to help create a safer charity sector for all. I also want to respect and honour the trust placed in us by those who shared their experiences for In Plain Sightby creating long-lasting change.

Cases of bullying reported in the media often receive a high profile but evidence from In Plain Sight indicates that this is more than just a ‘few bad apples’ and we need to keep our mind focused on achieving wider cultural and systems change. As always, my email is open to anyone who wants to talk about tackling bullying in the charity sector and we will continue to be transparent with both our progress and challenges.

Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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