A Save The Children charity shop in Westbourne, Dorset. Photo by: Alwyn Ladell / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — Save the Children UK “mismanaged” allegations of sexual misconduct and “let down” complainants and the public, according to a long-awaited Charity Commission report released Thursday.

“There were serious weaknesses in the charity’s workplace culture, and serious failures in the way the charity dealt with complaints about behaviour.”

— The Charity Commission’s report about Save the Children UK

The report from the U.K.’s charity regulator marks the culmination of an inquiry that began in 2018, after whistleblowers highlighted a series of sexual harassment allegations against two senior staff members.

It found that “there were serious weaknesses in the charity’s workplace culture, and serious failures in the way the charity dealt with complaints about behaviour at its head office.” The actions of Save the Children UK “damaged public trust and confidence,” the commission said, highlighting “inconsistencies” in information given out by the charity.

Alexia Pepper de Caires — a former employee of Save the Children UK and one of the whistleblowers whose actions led to the inquiry — told Devex she felt “huge relief” and “validation” with the report’s findings but called for the charity’s current leadership to step down and for more to be done to combat gender inequality within NGOs.

Save the Children UK accepted the findings and issued an apology.

The inquiry dealt with the charity’s response to 2012 and 2015 allegations of sexual harassment against senior staff. Former chief executive Justin Forsyth resigned in 2016 after apologizing to three female staff members, while Brendan Cox, former head of policy, quit before a harassment investigation against him was completed. Alan Parker, former chair of trustees, denied a cover-up when the allegations resurfaced in 2018 but later resigned.

The claims against the men, and Save the Children UK’s response, had a “corrosive impact” on the charity’s internal culture, the report found, highlighting “mismanagement” of key areas.

These included failing to tell the Charity Commission in 2015 that the complaints were directed against then-CEO Justin Forsyth and failing to pass this information to the board of trustees early enough.

The report said that after the complaints were made, Save the Children UK did not consistently follow its own misconduct processes, as evidenced by its decision to investigate the claims informally.

In addressing the allegations, the charity was “unduly defensive” in its statements, including one that was “not wholly accurate,” the commission found.

“Their actions at the time created the impression, both to those who had raised concerns and to the Charity Commission, that the charity was seeking to downplay the seriousness of the allegations and was not dealing responsibly and openly with the issues,” the report stated. “Inconsistencies between the information being given to the Charity Commission, and that reflected in public statements resulted in a warning to the charity about the accuracy and integrity of its assurances to complainants and of some of its public statements.”

Save the Children UK’s current CEO, Kevin Watkins — who served on the charity’s board before taking on the chief executive job in 2016 — said: “I unreservedly apologize to the women affected by the behavior of these two senior executives. The harm they suffered was compounded by a failure to respond appropriately to complaints and then by our defensive handling of media inquiries about the cases.

“Our staff are passionate about our work for children. They have a right to expect the highest standards of support and protection. I’m determined to work with them to build an organizational culture that reflects our values.”

But de Caires said Watkins, who led the charity during the media furor, should resign. “You can’t be a CEO who oversees this level of misconduct, further harming victims by minimizing what happened, silencing people effectively. I was silenced throughout their whole campaign to shut the media up. … He can’t remain in post.”

Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission, said that the public expected charities to be held to a higher standard than other organizations and that charity staff deserved a healthy working culture.

“Creating that culture is not just about putting the right systems and processes in place; it also requires leaders who model the highest standards of behavior and conduct and who are held to account properly and consistently when they fall short,” she said. “This responsibility is especially pronounced in large, household-name charities. Their leaders are powerful and highly respected. … They must use that power responsibly and in a way that reflects legitimate expectations of charity.”

The U.K. government welcomed the report and said it would work closely with both Save the Children UK and the Charity Commission to consider what actions must be taken.

“We have a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment and bullying in any organisation,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “We are fighting to end sexual violence against women and girls across the world every day and therefore expect the charities we work with to do the same.”

The spokesperson added: “The Government has been at the forefront of driving up safeguarding standards across the charity sector. We continue to be clear that organisations, like Save the Children, have a clear duty of care to staff and must always protect the people they engage with. This requires strong leadership.”

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.