Walking the Talk: 6 Key Lessons from Our Safeguarding Journey
by Gladys Onyango, Carolyne Musyoka, and Shermin Moledina
In the wake of scandals involving abuse and exploitation by aid workers, numerous development and humanitarian agencies have made safeguarding pledges. In these pledges they have committed to taking active measures to ensure that those reached and impacted by their programs are protected from both deliberate and accidental harm and abuse. These safeguarding conversations have trickled down to the level of foundations and nonprofits in recent years, evoking difficult conversations about the inequities and power dynamics often existing between donors, doers, and the communities they exist to serve, and the potential for abuse and harm.
At SFF, we have been challenged to take a step back to reflect on our duty of care and responsibility for the safety and well-being of the organizations we support, as well as the individuals and communities reached by their programs. We developed our first ever safeguarding policy and procedures in 2019 as a starting point to becoming a foundation that cared not only about the social impact of the organizations we support and also how the impact is delivered.
For the past three years, safeguarding efforts at SFF have been geared towards supporting our grantee-partners to run healthy organizations where leaders and teams are supported to thrive and give their best. More importantly, it’s been about supporting our grantee-partners to implement safe, quality programs in which the clients and communities they are serving are protected, treated with dignity, and have a voice in how they are served.
Our journey to walk the talk and implement safeguarding within the foundation and across our community has successes, as well as days that have made us realize that our efforts are still a work in progress. Here are some key lessons we are learning so far:
1. Go beyond compliance.
Despite the progressive rhetoric of collective care, compliance and risk avoidance (especially reputational risk) remain the key drivers of safeguarding policies and standards issued by many development agencies and foundations. This has resulted in non-profit leaders developing generic safeguarding policies to meet donor requirements. They miss out on opportunities to think critically about their own power and positionality in their communities and the risks of harm. We have witnessed organizations with the best safeguarding policies and procedures on paper facing serious challenges with keeping their teams, their organizations, and their communities safe. Truly transformative safeguarding work challenges us to take a critical inside look at how we lead and operate our organizations. It also calls us to look outward at our societies and examine our role in dismantling the legacies of colonial exploitation and abuse that remain firmly embedded in development practice and form the root causes of many safeguarding challenges in the sector. In our view, approaching safeguarding conversations with partners in the spirit of fostering shared understanding rather than compliance is critical if we are to contribute to building mindful, power-conscious development practice.
2. Meet safeguarding standards and expectations with technical support.
We are learning that safeguarding is still a relatively new area of expertise in our focus countries and a new concept for our grantee-partners who tend to be small to medium-sized CBOs and NGOs. In many cases, safeguarding is still thought to be about child protection, and in some cases, protecting vulnerable persons. While these are important elements, safeguarding is more than that and also touches on recruitment and HR practice, program quality, set up of proper community feedback and reporting mechanisms, among other aspects in organizations. For the past three years we’ve invested in building safeguarding knowledge and capacity across our partner community through ongoing training, mentoring, shared resources, and individualized technical support from safeguarding experts. Most safeguarding resources in the public domain were originally designed with larger INGOs and Western charities in mind and may not always be relatable or transferable to our partners’ contexts. We are therefore also realizing the need to invest in developing localized safeguarding resources and case studies that are tailored to our partners’ daily lived experiences.
3. Leadership matters.
Through our safeguarding interactions with organization leaders and founders, we are reminded of how important good leadership is for an organization to be safe. It is not possible to separate good governance and accountability when we’re talking about safeguarding. The attitude, values, and leadership style have a huge impact on the organization and everyone they come into contact with. Ultimately our values affect what we say, how we behave, and how we show up in our interactions with people. Where we’ve observed leaders who were open to learning and change and able to share their power, organizational health and safety was apparent.
4. Trust, patience, and courage to have difficult conversations.
One of our greatest takeaways has been a deeper appreciation of the time, commitment, and openness that building a safeguarding culture in organizations takes. We’ve learned that as a funder, engaging with partners on their safeguarding practices requires a high level of vulnerability and emotional safety, thus making the element of trust-building very integral. Partners often need assurance that in case of gaps in their safeguarding there won’t be penalties. They need to know that the donor is willing to walk the journey with them and support them in strengthening their safeguarding practices. One way we are trying to cultivate trust with our partners on safeguarding issues is by encouraging them to proactively share any situations or issues they may be dealing with in their organizations so that we may accompany and learn with them.
While this approach centers on cultivating trusting relationships with grantees, it is not about unconditional trust. As a funder working across multiple countries and cultural contexts for instance, we have been called to be brave and have direct, difficult conversations with partners in instances where we have observed leadership, organizational, and community practices such as sexual harassment or corporal punishment that ran counter to SFF safeguarding standards, and yet appeared to be tolerated or considered to be the norm in their organizations and programs. While we may not always agree in such situations, we endeavor to listen to one another, and center the conversations around the well-being and best interest of those impacted, especially the most vulnerable. Even with a positive resolution and a commitment to end such practices, we have found that the leader may need time to engage other stakeholders in the organization and the wider community to get their consensus. Supporting our partners to put safeguarding into practice may thus involve being willing to trade speedy implementation for deeper buy-in and support of safeguarding within the organization and its constituents.
5. Weave safeguarding into the fabric of the organization and allocate adequate resources.
We are learning that to truly make safeguarding a living practice, we should seek to weave it into the fabric of the organization (in missions, strategies, programs, and operational processes), rather than make it a standalone province of a designated person or department in the organization. This work can seem overwhelming and require intense effort. However, the results — happy staff, empowered workplaces, and safe, quality, accountable programs for beneficiaries and communities — are worth the endeavor.
Funders should be willing to give additional funding to grantees towards safeguarding work since partners often face financial constraints that compromise their ability to implement safeguarding practices. We’ve encountered situations where partners’ programs may be unsafe not due to negligence, but because the organization lacks the technical knowhow or adequate resources to hire a social worker, or run an effective case management program, for instance. In such cases, we provide additional financial support to cover the costs needed to address the safeguarding gap. We try to provide the partner with appropriate guidance in conducting safe programming in their communities.
Another way we are trying to incorporate safeguarding into programs is by supporting collaborative, peer-learning exchanges where partners working on similar issues (e.g with children at risk of separation from their families) can leverage on learning from their peers who have made tangible progress in building a safeguarding culture, so that they all can grow together and learn from each other. This is proving to be a useful way to harness the wealth of safeguarding experience and expertise already existing in our community, and also contextualizing our safeguarding support to fit our partners’ diverse programs and organizational needs.
6. Examine and address funder practices that may perpetuate cycles of harm in communities.
Our safeguarding journey thus far has challenged us to reflect on our own power as funders, and our role in helping to call out funder practices that are often at the root of safeguarding challenges in the sector. For instance, restrictions on overheads (a common funder practice) could mean that partners running outreach programs for vulnerable communities struggle to provide quality, holistic services owing to rigid grant structures that don’t allow them to recruit essential staff or adapt to their constituent’s needs. We have also seen how pressure placed on grantee-partners to show results and share impact stories can result in beneficiaries being subjected to exploitative pictures, storytelling, or performative funder site visits where victims at times have to relive their traumas to show the organization’s impact. Similarly, funding decisions that focus majorly on compelling stories and impact numbers without asking the difficult questions around local knowledge, expertise, quality of services, or community involvement have also been at the root of many cases of abuse and exploitation in communities. It’s been eye-opening and humbling to see how intrinsically connected safeguarding is to the wider movement for equitable, just philanthropy. Our hope is to see more funders critically reflecting on links between systemic injustices in philanthropy and safeguarding issues, especially in the Global South.
Lastly, it is important to emphasize that the safeguarding journey is not linear. Having the strongest safeguarding policies and systems does not mean harm or abuse won’t happen in organizations. What’s critical is how we learn from these setbacks and take steps to reduce the likelihood of the event happening in future.
We are proud of the strides we have made in our safeguarding journey with our partners so far. However, we are learning from our experiences that there is a great deal more to learn about how we can advance transformative safeguarding practices that positively shift leadership and organizational cultures and make the sector truly accountable to the end-users of development programs and initiatives. It is only through authentic conversations and holistic safeguarding efforts that the development and philanthropy sectors can fulfill their promise of transforming our societies to become more safe, equitable, and just for all.