Paul Streets: Bullying is not just a ‘big charity’ problem

This article was first published in the Third Sector.


It’s been hard to read the voluntary sector press in the past year without seeing the discussion on bullying.

While much of the dialogue has been about large charities, it would be wrong to see this as a big charity problem.

It may be more publicly visible in larger organisations, but small charities are not immune.

Indeed, the pressures small charities experience, such as overwhelming demand, scarce resources, vicarious contractual terms – often dependent on the next contract confirmed (or not) days before the end of the last one – can lead to poor management practice.

Good boards know they have a pastoral care responsibility – but it is your job to make sure they are able to fulfil it. And, of course, sometimes the problem is the board.

There can also be leadership cadres, often rooted in valuable experience gained on the front line but rarely supported with appropriate leadership development, either because it is not perceived as a valuable use of time or, more often, because there are almost no unrestricted funds to pay for it.


This is why, alongside our funding, we offer a range of management development support, from organised programmes with peers to individual and team resilience coaching. And there is plenty of demand. Take-up is high. Those of us who have had the benefit of good leadership training throughout our careers should know and do better.


But sometimes we don’t. Often whatever we learn is emphasised or negated by our personal experience.


I have only been bullied once as a director in a not-for-profit. No one else would have known, but I remember the dread of the next session with the chief executive and the impossible pressure.


What I experienced was difficult. But as a white, educated man, my experience is very different to that of women, people of colour, or disabled people, where their characteristics may be directly invoked in the bullying – or, if not, many will feel more vulnerable and exposed when bullying occurs.


Of course, bullying is not unique to our sector. From my experience, at senior levels in the public sector it is quite common – frequently driven from ministers down. But the first stage of tackling a problem is calling it out. We should welcome acknowledgement.


I hope that I have never engaged in bullying behaviour myself, but that is for others to judge. All charity leaders should be asking themselves, their peers and those around them this.


As ACEVO’s Kristiana Wrixon highlights in her powerful blog post, people can be both bullied and a bully.


It’s vital that leaders don't remain blind to how their behaviours can perpetuate bullying, hiding behind a good cause. But, as leaders, what is to be done?



  • First, consider where you get your own support outside the office. I have found peer groups and learning sets to be an invaluable escape valve.

  • Second, find ways to know what is going on within your organisation and how people feel about working there. That’s about hard data – 360° appraisal, staff surveys and so on.
    Perhaps more importantly, triangulate this with soft data. The opportunistic chat while making coffee (harder online, I know), the discussion with a new member of staff two months in, and the staff member leaving.
    Most of this is about hard listening and watching. Good leaders are amateur organisational and personal psychologists, and should use these skills to constantly question and try to improve their practice.

  • Third, make routes for your board to know what is going on too. Again, this is about hard data, but it is also about opportunities to meet with staff without you shadowing them. And, if the worst comes to the worst, a whistleblowing policy.
    Good boards know they have a pastoral care responsibility – but it is your job to make sure they are able to fulfil it. And, of course, sometimes the problem is the board.


All this comes with a health warning. Being a leader isn’t about popularity. You will almost certainly have to do things that some people, and maybe your whole staff group, don’t like. You will certainly sometimes have to manage performance, and you may have to navigate people out.


This is not easy. It’s isolating and can fill you with self-doubt – and, sometimes, loathing. Which takes me back to where I started. Think first about what support you need to manage well, and where you will get it. Do that the day you start, not when problems arise.


This is not an optional extra. Poor management practice isn’t just hugely distressing to those it affects directly. It kills organisational creativity and innovation, drives high staff turnover and, when it is endemic, creates sycophantic, compliant cultures.


This is the very antithesis of what good charities should be about: empathy for the cause, striving for new and different approaches to problems, and a focus on those we serve first and foremost. Looking out – not behind our backs.

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