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Save the Children UK: transformed ‘beyond recognition’

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 01 Jun 2021

Save the Children UK has transformed its reputation over the past three years. The charity’s senior accountability manager, Laura-Louise Fairley, explains the changes and improvements they put in place to improve its public perception.

Rebuilding trust has become of critical importance to Save the Children UK, following media coverage in 2018 of historic allegations of misconduct by two former executives at its head office. It was a difficult period for all involved, but now, three years on, with an organisation-wide determination to turn things around, things couldn’t be more different.

Laura-Louise Fairley, the charity’s senior accountability manager, says lessons have been learned and acted upon, evidenced by the raft of changes and improvements introduced over the past few years. The Charity Commission’s independent report, for example, acknowledged that the charity had made ‘significant process’ in implementing changes since 2018. 

Fairley, who joined Save the Children UK in 2017, believes the charity has transformed itself ‘beyond recognition’. She herself observed a ‘monumental shift in trust’ within the organisation since she first joined. “We have shifted to a kinder culture with much stronger internal systems and processes to ensure we are rooting out any issues and reporting them with clarity and accuracy.”

Having been around during one of the most challenging times in the charity’s history, Fairley was – and is – deeply aware of the issues at play. A big part of her role has been about acknowledging that things had gone wrong within its workplace culture in London, while working to address the root of the issues. 

“Our staff was rightly very concerned about what was being revealed in the media concerning the actions of two of our former leaders in 2012 and 2015, and there was some discontent among staff, with many not feeling heard,” she says. “It was an extremely tough time, but one we definitely learnt from.” 

In Fairley’s view, organisations must practice ‘real and meaningful accountability’, which she sees as the ‘foundation’ of trust. “If something goes wrong – own it.” 

For Save the Children UK, this was about creating a culture of kindness, safety and support, based on compassion, trust and respect through the charity’s People and Culture Strategy. Set up in 2019, the strategy is underpinned by a new set of workplace behaviours co-created with staff, which focus on how they speak and listen to each other while holding each other to account. 

Staff networks – LGBT+ Allies, BAME, Disability and Equality, Gender and the Parents Network – meet quarterly with executive leadership to share views and advocate for change. The networks have led to the development of a new Trans Inclusion Policy and the extension of paternity leave from two weeks to three months.

The charity has also published its first Ethnicity Data and Pay Gap Report as part of its wider Diversity and Inclusion strategy and commitment to dismantling racism. Reporting ethnicity pay gaps is not yet mandatory but, as Fairley explains, it would be impossible to operate as an inclusive organisation if systems and processes were not designed to eradicate all forms of discrimination, such as pay gaps, and developing quality data is a critical foundation for meaningful change. Diversity and inclusion initiatives like those implemented at Save the Children UK can help organisations demonstrate respect for their staff, providing the initiatives are genuine and meaningful.

“But don’t fake care,” Fairley warns. “It needs to be more than wellbeing and inclusion gestures. If marginalised people don’t truly feel seen or heard, or if you place unreasonable expectations on your people, they will suffer.”

It’s one thing to be committed to ethical values and behaviours, but organisations need to demonstrate that commitment. This, says Fairley, is where accountability comes in.

“Accountability means enabling our key stakeholders to hold us to account for both delivering on our commitments and doing so with integrity. We must be transparent so that children and communities, our supporters, donors and our people can both shape and assess our actions. Without the trust of our people, we will fail to deliver our mission for children. It’s that simple.”

As far as Fairley is concerned, the charity’s Annual Report is the ‘perfect tool’ for Save the Children UK to demonstrate accountability – and this is important. For a charity still recovering from an uncomfortable recent past, the Annual Report is its way of demonstrating to the public and interested parties that change has – and continues – to happen. 

It’s why Fairley doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics when developing the report – in fact, she embraces them, presenting topics like safeguarding, diversity and inclusion, anti-racism and transparent finances with more prominence than many other organisations would. “These topics are real,” she says. “If you don’t address them or talk about them and you’re not transparent, then something is really wrong. You need to hold these up and be honest about your challenges so people can trust you – or hold you to account.”

In addition to reporting on the charity’s impact – how it helps the world’s most marginalised children survive, learn and be protected – in recent years, Fairley has amplified another key element: transparency. “That’s why we go into so much financial detail in our Annual Report; to be transparent and equip our stakeholders to hold us to account. We take a lot of time breaking down where and how we spend our finances – I think that’s really important.”

Although Fairley believes the Annual Report offers more detail than many other organisations, she admits it still only provides a snapshot. It’s why context is so essential, to provide enough information to give people – including staff – enough of a picture to make their own informed decisions.

”Despite increasing transparency in the report, which can come with its own risks, we’ve received less concern from the public on its publication. I firmly believe that the key to a positive relationship with your stakeholders is honesty. Provide truthful information for your stakeholders to make informed decisions, and don’t try to sugar-coat the challenges.”

So, given all the significant changes that have taken place within Save the Children UK over the past few years, has it made an impact? Have trust levels improved?

“Absolutely,” says Fairley. “I realise I’m speaking from a position of privilege, but the new behaviours we’ve been encouraging around active listening and feeling safe enough to challenge each other have become deeply embedded. The transformation – although tough at times – has created an internal culture unrecognisable from just three years ago.”