David Bull

Nov 8, 2018, 8:00 AM

Protective Organisational Culture

In the wake of the crisis following revelations about the behaviour of some Oxfam staff in Haiti, the International Development sector has been gripped by the need for robust approaches to the safeguarding of vulnerable people. NGOs have reviewed policies and put in place new procedures to ensure that abusive activities are prevented and addressed. But policies and procedures only take us so far. The Secretary of State called for “moral leadership”. The Select Committee called for “fundamental culture change”. These aspects of culture and leadership are essential but there is no off-the-shelf template for culture change.

The question then is how to embed values into an organisational culture conducive to the protection of all those who engage with the charity, in the field or in the office. What would such a culture look like?  I have been considering what kind of cultures would be most conducive to the achievement of safeguarding objectives. What would such a ‘protective culture’ look like? 


Culture change must be built on consultation and engagement. Nevertheless, I believe there are key elements that organisations should consider in defining explicit cultural norms to encourage and support protection and safeguarding. 

Such a list can only be a starting point, but to follow are ten key elements of a protective and caring culture:

•    Putting communities and rights holders first: the focus has to be on the people charities are working with. Their interests must always come first, above (for example) concerns about the organisation's reputation, if we are to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable.

•    No Silos: a protective culture has to be one to which the whole organisation is committed. It will be undermined if different teams follow different behaviours, keep information to themselves or put their own interest above those of the rights holders. 

•    Personal Responsibility: a protective culture needs people to understand that they all bear responsibility for doing the right thing. 

•    Wellbeing: stressed people often make bad decisions. A protective culture will pay attention to work-life balance and wellbeing. Where people look after one another, abuse is less likely to happen and less likely to go unchallenged.

•    Internal Communications: it is vital that people and teams share appropriate information openly and enthusiastically as part of "how we do things round here". 

•    Mutual Respect and Trust: Respect means treating different people, opinions and ideas positively, not dismissing them. People won't speak up about concerns if they think they'll be put down. 

•    Learn from Mistakes and Failures: if everyone is afraid to say that something didn't go right then information will be hidden and partial (including information relevant to safeguarding), and opportunities to learn will be lost. 

•    Embrace and Manage Risk and encourage autonomy: there is a danger that the desire to reduce risk could lead to an over cautious, directive culture in which people may be afraid to raise safeguarding issues. Decisions often involve complex choices and greater autonomy is likely to be more effective in reaching the best protective outcomes. 

•    Exemplary Leadership: leaders need to embody the culture and values, set an example, challenge breaches of culture, engage staff early in addressing challenges, empower where possible, direct only where necessary... Be seen to champion the culture at every opportunity. 

•    Be aware of power relationships:  Power differentials are central to the idea of vulnerability, and therefore for protection from abuse. Empowering people reduces vulnerability. Everyday interactions need to be based on respect for colleagues ahead of respect for hierarchy. 


An Action Planning Consultant, David Bull has previously led four international organisations including Amnesty International UK and Unicef UK. He led Unicef UK to become one of Britain's most successful and high-profile fundraising and campaigning charities with voluntary income of £100m. Now a trustee of two international NGOs, David undertakes consultancy assignments including mentoring CEOs, advising philanthropists, public speaking, and identifying international development programmes for a major new global initiative. He enjoys helping leaders to develop their organisations, solve problems and find innovative ways to overcome constraints and achieve ambitious results. In 2015, David was awarded the CBE for his humanitarian work.

If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, including how they may be affecting your charity and how you can improve and implement culture change to ensure a protective 
organisational culture, David can be contacted through Action Planning at office@actionplanning.co.uk

This piece is a shortened version of an article, the full version which can be found at: https://worldtorights.org/2018/10/18/what-does-a-protective-organisational-culture-look-like/

David Bull

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