#Time’sUp for charisma culture in the NGO sector.

Ruth Coustick-Deal
9 min readMar 4, 2018


Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

In the last few weeks there have been major stories about abuse in the charity sector. One at Oxfam. One at Save the Children. Sadly, I expect we will see more very soon.

We should be furious about these stories. Just as furious as we have been about abuse in Hollywood. In politics. In journalism. But there’s a defensiveness that the NGO sector is putting out about these stories, that is truly disappointing, and damaging. Specifically, they are directing that emotion towards the papers reporting on the abuse.

It’s true that there is an institutional hostility towards the charity sector at papers like the Daily Mail, and I would like that to change. Yes, there is a question about the long-term impact their tone and writing has on making the world better. But there is a time and a place to criticise the mouthpiece, and it’s not the moment that you find yourself in the cross-fires for sexual abuse.

Yet, I have seen more rage about the Mail, and its agenda to undermine public sector campaigning, than I have about the systematic sexism, abuse and cover-ups in the biggest UK charities.

A specific aspect of the accusations is that the media focus is too much on the organisations, and not enough on the individuals. For example, why put Save the Children and Oxfam in the headlines, rather than naming the individual people responsible, as with Weinstein and Kevin Spacey?

In response, I would particularly point to the excellent piece in Open Democracy about Save the Children and highlight some key points.

“What happened at Save the Children UK wasn’t a ‘mistake’, it was a strategic choice: achieving change for children, went the argument, needed Save the Children to be firmly led by powerful charismatic leaders who ruffled feathers and who should be followed obediently by staff.”

The point above should really illustrate why the news has focused on the organisations. There is a high standard expected of charities and campaigners, because the reason to exist is ‘doing good work’.

In these other sectors — media, politics, journalism — perhaps there is some expectation of ‘sleaze’, perhaps there is already less public trust. (Not, I would clarify, of the rape and abuse that Weinstein carried out.) For charities, not just to have “workplace harassment”, but a culture that enables it: that is shocking to the world.

It is particularly stunning that those in power saw a culture of bullying as necessary to do the good work itself. This is miles from a high standard. It is not about a few people, it is about how management and organisation cultures put their leaders on an untouchable pedestal.

It’s believing that charisma and power are more important than the hard-working staff who are the real ones who ‘do the work’.

The second key point the article raises is this:
You might be wondering why all these stories of harassment and abuse are being broken by the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph — it was the Mail that originally covered Cox’s departure from the charity back in 2015. Why didn’t the complainants go to somewhere like the Guardian? They did.”

It goes on to show how those papers traditionally aligned with the sector chose not to cover the stories. There were layers of silencing and control that kept change from happening. Eventually it was the Mail that got the story.

Even though I cannot stand the paper, if we want “better coverage of abuse” (personally, my goal is no abuse in the workplace) then we must challenge the culture of cover-ups, we must make it easier to come forward, and respect and listen to whistle-blowers.

We could even publish the truth ourselves first, if we were more able to face our failings.

The tone is that, by coming forward about bullying or harassment, people are being “traitors to the movement”. The bad actors are “one of us”, and the reporters are our enemies. We should be loyal to the sector, prevent there from being bad stories, and stay quiet. It creates a guilt factor that has a very strong silencing impact. There’s a history of this kind of culture in activist movements.

If someone was considering going forward with bad/abusive behaviour they have witnessed and saw the “this is harming the sector” arguments as the first response in our communities they will be less likely to come forward.

And abuse will continue as a result.

When talking about harassment there is an entire patriarchal culture that encourages women to put their abusers first. Then there are the unique pressures which maintain these power structures in NGOs/charities:

a) Not trusting authority / considering ourselves rebels, thinking we can solve problems internally.
b) Not wanting to be “a grass.”
c) High levels of imposter syndrome “it’s just me, no one else sees this.” “it’s just me not fitting in”.
d) “I don’t want to let the sector down.”
e) “I want the movement to win” / I’m not important in the grand scheme of “winning”
f) “He does good work”

All of these need recognising and need to be fought in our workplaces.

I have particularly seen that last line used over and over again. In person, “he’s just awkward”; “he doesn’t know it’s inappropriate”; and always followed by “his work is great.” I would recommend this piece by Leigh Honeywell on ‘no more rock stars’, for more on this phenomenon. There’s one line that I have quoted to death because it is the guideline I hope that more and more people can absorb into their souls.

“If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are asking yourself if someone’s benefits outweigh their liabilities, recognize that they’ve already cost the community more than they can ever give to it and get to work on ejecting them quickly.”

I may be talking about gender right now, in this piece. But the same rule applies to racism in the workplace. To ableism. It’s present, and it all needs to be faced, not deflected from. When those at the top are balancing up any of these things, trust me, you’ve already lost people because of them.

It’s also certainly not just men who perpetuate the problem: a negative culture takes many participants, and then real force of will to unravel once it has set in.

When whistle-blowers speak up they are still — even in the context of discussions of rampant, institutional sexism — being told to do so more politely. Even after #MeToo. #TimesUp. Tone-policing prevents transparency, and holds back change.


“It also tarnishes you personally in the eyes of thousands of your peers in this community and beyond.”

What is this quote about? Is it about sexual harassment in the workplace? No. A question about coming forward about harrassment was asked on a closed online discussion list in the sector, and a woman asked why the first responses had been from men. This is the response she then received from a powerful man in the campaigning community.

My first point in that discussion had been to say that “letting the sector down” is a fear woman have when we come forward. Within 24 hours that idea was thrown at a woman just discussing harassment.

This is a micro-example of how a culture of “the movement first” works in action, without participants necessarily realising that it is what they’re doing. Those who speak up are labelled “difficult women”, and asked to think about how they present, diminishing the power of their words. I want to turn the gaze back and say: I see you doing this, and I reject it.

I have also seen how little men in the sector recognise the power that they have in these moments. In one line saying they “know the patriarchy exists”, in the next they tell women not to divide people by gender, and prevent the men from talking.

Overall, it forces us to spend too much time on our language, and not enough on change.

The truth is, there will be harassment in the workplace at charities and NGOs. We employ people, and it happens wherever people are. The choice is about acting to put the tools in place to deal with it, and how we react when it surfaces. We can be so much better than this.

I wish there was more fury about women leaving the sector out of fear, than at the harm to our brands. We must address how these power structures function in our movements and work on dismantling them, right now.

Are people saying, “Never again”? “What can I do to make sure this never happens where I work?” “How can we all learn from this?” Where those questions are happening, can we pass those lessons on to each other, and care for the community better?

So on that note. Here’s some things that the people who hold power could do. What all of us can do.

1) Not passing on people who have left because of harassment, to another top position. Both Cox and Forsyth were allowed to go quietly; Forsyth moved on to become number two at UNICEF.

2) I’d love NGO/charity communities to reiterate their policies at this time. To make it clear who gets to be in power. To make it clear that there are rules that will be enforced about inappropriate behaviour — and define what that is.

3) I would love to see EDs and leaders of the sector come together and talk about making workplaces safer, to collaborate on improvements. To do so with transparency.

4) Make safe space policies at your events that are seriously enforced. No inappropriate behaviour, no matter who. For example, what happens when an ED of a major charity is racist to a volunteer? The conference organisers have less leverage I’ve felt, to challenge someone in that kind of situation. As an event organiser myself in the past, I have faced those challenges as young woman organiser speaking up to powerful men attending. But this is what our spaces need to be able to do to, supporting each other in these challenges.

This is why I was really excited to read the Internet Freedom Festival’s policy. They take a stand not just against harassment at their conference, but that has taken place anywhere. It shows that there can be consequences beyond a single event, and I think that’s very powerful.

“If we learn of credible allegations of harassment by the leadership of another Internet freedom organization, that organization will be subject to the following rules until the allegations have been resolved effectively in our judgment:

  • The organization cannot be a partner or sponsor of IFF.
  • The organization cannot propose or host sessions at IFF.
  • Leadership accused of harassment or whose role in the incident is not clear cannot attend IFF.
  • Members of the organization who are NOT the subject of credible allegations of harassment may attend IFF and propose sessions as individuals.”

I hope to talk more to the organisers about how they learnt to challenge power imbalances, and how this works in practice.

5) Organise caucusing, spaces at events where women, non-binary, and gender minorities can talk about these issues and share information with one another.

6) Do an internal culture review. Use anonymous secure surveys. Ask people if they feel that complaints are adequately dealt with. Allow people to lead the culture review who have brought previous complaints.

7) Celebrate and be proud of the whistle-blowers. But also have security measures for keeping their names safe when asked. There’s another excellent piece by Leigh Honeywell about staying safe whilst saying #MeToo.

8) Come forward when you can. Support the people who do so. There is a platform that several women have set up to send anonymous evidence, to submit to the UK Government’s Women and Equalities Committee, for their inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace.

9) Watch out for rock stars in your workplace. Where are people able to get away with bad behaviour? Where is “he does good work” being used as a defense? Tackle and challenge these lines early, and often. Be wary of charisma being a replacement for thoughtful leadership.

I hope we can use this opportunity to find room for #MeToo in our sector as well.

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Ruth Coustick-Deal

Interested in all things tech + inclusion | Co-host of The Intersection of Things podcast |