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Charity risk: tips on safeguarding and culture

Paul Rao Paul Rao

Charities face greater expectations around supporting people than other industries. Paul Rao offers tips on charity risk around safeguarding and managing people, culture and leadership.

The most critical danger of safeguarding failures is the significant personal impact on individuals that weren't properly protected. Charities also need to think about the long term damage to their reputation that may make it more difficult to deliver their services as a result.

Safeguarding represents a key source of risk for charities that work with adults at risk and children. It's a hugely complex issue, and the relevance of it for specific charities depends on various factors, including their activity and size. Recent media attention arising from a range of concerns involving high-profile charities has made it a particular area of focus for the Charity Commission.

Risk registers are also including more references to safeguarding the employees and volunteers of a charity, caused by problems such as bullying in the workplace. In this light, let's look at 10 steps you can take to protect your organisation.

Safeguarding principles for management

Ensure that the safeguarding framework is robust and well understood

Charities should have a policy approved by the trustees that defines the extent of control around safeguarding risk. For instance, there is no defined requirement for a charity to perform Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks for certain individuals.

This flexibility means it's critical that charities clearly define their principles and rules for safeguarding protocols, including DBS checking in a formal policy so that these can be operationalised into documented procedures and robust control activities. Given the risk around this area, the policy should be approved by the Board of Trustees and regularly reviewed.

Ensure that background checks are completed

Implementing robust controls for background checks, including DBS checks is fundamental; background checks are a key control for managing safeguarding risks. Charities need to consider the full range of stakeholders that may require a background check.

This typically includes employees, contractors, trustees and other volunteers, as well as third parties. They also need to consider the frequency at which a DBS check will require renewal, documentation retention and destruction processes, and exceptional arrangements (if at all) in instances where an individual may need to perform work for a charity while pending a DBS check.

Provide tailored training

Due to the complexity of the application of safeguarding in practice, it will apply differently to individual charities, and stakeholders will require different knowledge in relation to it.

Charities should consider the safeguarding training needs of their stakeholders, taking into account trustees, senior management, employees and volunteers who work with children and adults at risk at a minimum and ensure they each receive appropriate training and communication, including refresher training, as part of their role.

Provide easy escalations for safeguarding concerns

Easy and trusted escalation paths can provide a way of understanding concerns that exist as both whistleblowing and grievance procedures can be intimidating to use for some people. Early indications of concerns can lead to both a better understanding of safeguarding risks across the charity as well as ensuring remedial action.

Questions for trustees and audit committees

  • Do you fully understand the safeguarding risks facing your charity, including any complexities?
  • Has an analysis of roles been performed to identify the roles that carry a safeguarding risk?
  • Have you received adequate safeguarding training?
  • Do you have the required level of expertise to challenge the executive on the charity’s safeguarding arrangements?
  • Have you reviewed the safeguarding risk assessment (if one has been performed)?
  • Do you know whether the main elements of the safeguarding framework are operating effectively?
  • Has a safeguarding trustee been appointed, and if not, should one be appointed?
  • If you appoint a lead trustee, has it been made clear that they are not to be the only person among the trustees who understands safeguarding?
  • Is safeguarding a standing agenda item at board meetings and relevant board sub-committee meetings? If not, should it be?

People, leadership, and culture

Our benchmarking analysis has found substantial overlap in the ways in which charities define and manage people and culture-related risks. Effective leadership is an important key driver that impacts culture and has received heightened focus in charities.

The tone from the top and consistency of messaging and role modelling of desired behaviour is key to retaining and attracting staff in both crisis and normal times.

Underpinning an effective culture where staff are motivated, productive and stakeholders’ needs are met, requires effective alignment of all areas of people management including performance and talent management.

In terms of talent management, succession planning was a common concern showing that charities are worried about being unable to retain their best people and recruiting new leaders when the need arises. Culture has also been firmly on the charity agenda with many larger charities investing significant time and resources in projects to understand and evolve their cultures.

Management considerations for people, leadership and culture

Aim to develop a culture that is aligned with strategy and objectives

Ensure the culture is understood and required behaviour is role modelled by the leadership team. Senior leaders set the tone at the top and this must drive the desired culture in-line with the charity’s strategy.

Two further key levers a charity has at its disposal in fostering its desired culture are recruitment and performance appraisal processes. If a charity is attempting to influence a change in its culture, then it should ensure recruitment processes and practices are aligned to recruit individuals it believes will help foster the target culture.

Similarly, culture should be formally considered during employee performance appraisals to monitor, manage and encourage behavioural alignment. The challenge, however, that many charities face is understanding what culture is currently in place and what the target culture should look like.

Focus on employee performance management to ensure wellbeing

An effective employee performance management framework is likely to contribute positively to talent retention, providing a preventive measure against the loss of talent. Despite this potential benefit, we find employee performance management to be an area where charities, in general, have room to improve.

Charities should focus on getting the basics right. This means executing the performance cycle and monitoring its completion and quality. The critical importance of people and line management should not be underplayed, and charities should consider investing in training to strengthen and enable effective and productive people management which supports the charity’s strategy.

Focus on succession planning

There is a need to keep succession plans under regular review. Despite the awareness of succession risk shown by the charities in our analysis, we find charities don't consistently update their succession plans following the departures of individuals included in the plans or where there is a change in strategy (where previously non-critical roles become critical).

Charities should create a trigger within their operational governance processes that ensures succession plans are formalised and are revisited at an appropriate frequency or following key departures.

Questions for trustees and audit committees

  • Have you assessed your culture, using a methodology which gives your people sufficient opportunity to feed into the process to genuinely understand your culture?
  • Is your performance management framework fit for purpose, in line with current good practice and appropriately followed?
  • Does this include less-formal, but more frequent check-ins, fewer targeted objectives, use of moderation meetings to ensure fairness, etc?
  • Do you have a formal, well-understood succession plan? Has it been tested?
  • Do you have a clear, up-to-date whistleblowing policy which enables your people to anonymously raise any concerns?

If you need to know more about particular risks to the charity sector, you can read our recent benchmarking study on the top 10 risks facing the charity sector in 2021 and the first deep dive into the data protection and cyber security risks. Future insights will also explore the remaining risks.

For help managing these and other charity sector risk trends, contact Paul Rao.


The top 10 risks facing the charity sector in 2021

Uncover what charities should focus on to reduce risk

10 charity risks: deep dives on data and cyber security

Find out more
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The top 10 risks facing the charity sector in 2021

10 charity risks: deep dives on data and cyber security

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