23rd February, 2018

Low overheads and high accountability – you can’t have both

What happened at Oxfam is terrible. Many mistakes were made.  But it raises an important point about the need for what’s called ‘infrastructure’ within a charity.  It’s the people, systems and resources that underpin what they do.  These types of costs are typically called ‘overheads’.

Many people/news outlets are rightly complaining that safeguarding procedures were flawed within Oxfam, there wasn’t enough investigation, and not enough communication with supporters and the public.  Yet within the same breath they say that CEO salary and organisational overheads are too high.

Well, you can’t have it both ways.  Charities need infrastructure.  It is a sad fact of life that charitable work with vulnerable people can attract people who want to abuse them.  To make sure that these people don’t slip through the net it takes extremely robust procedures, which need to be managed by people.  This is infrastructure.

This is especially important if working with high risk causes such as international development.  Staff are literally trying to save lives, often in conditions akin to a war zone.  I couldn’t do that.  Could you?

Charities such as Oxfam, Save the Children and others are often the first to respond to a humanitarian crisis.  They can because thousands of individual donors (myself included) give them a little money every month and trust them to spend it where it is needed.

To know where to spend that money and how best to spend it takes strong leadership, robust systems, time and expertise – centrally, and locally in the countries in which they operate.  According to their website, Oxfam is currently working within 90 countries, including South Sudan, Pakistan and Somalia.

Recently, Oxfam has fallen short of the standards that they, and we, expect.  Mistakes have been made. Huge ones. They have apologised to supporters, the press and the UK Parliamentary Select Committee.  And according to various statements they are working hard to make sure this never happens again.

But we must remember that international development and aid is essential to humanity.  See this video from Melinda Gates about how child deaths have almost halved in the past 20 years.  Think what could be achieved in the next 20 years.  We mustn’t lose sight of this in the midst of our concerns about what happened at Oxfam.

Here’s four things you can do right now to educate yourself and get involved with the causes you care about.

  1. Follow the organisation and its leaders on Twitter.
  2. Download and read their annual report.
  3. Sign up to their newsletter.  You can always check their privacy statement if you’re concerned about what they’ll do with your data.
  4. If you can, consider making a regular donation to an international development charity.  It will almost certainly help to save a life.
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