This year’s Gathering was another outstanding success. Two days of stalls, workshops, showcasing, networking, learning and celebrating. Near 3,000 people visited over two days at the SEC and I’m sure every one of them took away at least one nugget of information that will serve them and their organisation well in the years ahead.
Of course, The Gathering came at a difficult time this year and I can’t be the only one to have noticed a slightly muted atmosphere and the odd muttered conversation about the Oxfam scandal unfolding on the front pages over the two days.
Certainly, there remains an element of fear that this scandal could spill beyond Oxfam, beyond the international aid sector and, ultimately, cause the general public to lose the hard won trust they have in charities.
I tend to believe that these fears will prove to be unfounded. SCVO’s most recent research shows that charities are still amongst the most trusted institutions in our society (second only to health professionals) and this remains a real cause of celebration. Having said that, these recent revelations constitute a wake-up call on which we can’t afford to hit the snooze button.
This moment should remind us that public trust can never be taken for granted or expected, and that it is something to be earned, cherished and worked at. Oxfam have lost some 8,000 regular donors in a matter of days (and stand to lose support from corporate backers) and question mark still hovers over the extent to which damage can be minimised and trust rebuilt.
Furthermore, we must remember that there are those who revel in a grand downfall story. While Oxfam have evidently failed in properly dealing with a truly horrific situation (and have themselves to blame for that), many of those currently twisting the dagger are not doing so from a standpoint of moral superiority, or in a bid to improve accountability and good practice. They are doing it to settle old scores, or further their own narrow agenda.
At The Gathering, I was pleased to speak at the Humanist Society Scotland seminar on values for a modern Scotland and the sector’s role in that. I admit that, prior to this week, the subject of values was one I had neglected. I knew that values were a good guiding principle and that I had certain values of my own (and if you don’t like them, I have others). However, now may be the right moment for third sector organisations to reassess their values and ensure they are living up to them. Doing this is one of the surest ways to build public trust and minimise the risk of an Oxfam-style crisis.
In the sector, there is a temptation to think that, because we do good and important work for the benefit of others, we are above reproach and somewhat ethically superior to profit making private companies or public sector arms of the state. To believe this as settled fact would be folly and we must always ensure our moral compass reads true north.
Third sector volunteers, management, trustees and employees must have a firm grasp of what their organisation’s values are and seek to operate and behave according to these standards. To do this, values must be given greater prominence within organisations and we must all have the courage, space and opportunity to question whether as a whole, or as individuals, these values are being lived up to.
By doing this, we can hope to identify failings early, root out those guilty of misconduct and respond to difficult situations with honesty, integrity and dignity.
By living up to the values the sector holds dear, we will be in a healthier state, have a stronger sense of purpose, be prepared to deal with our own shortcomings and, ultimately, be worthy of the trust that so many in society place in our sector.