A Kenyan woman in a pink dress talks with her hands

Beyond Compliance: Towards a Reflective & Collaborative Approach to Championing Safeguarding in Global Philanthropy

| April 4, 2023
by Sylvia K. Ilahuka, Communications Officer

With safeguarding becoming an increasingly prominent conversation in international development and philanthropy, the question is now no longer whether to implement safeguarding but rather how to do so in a way that’s meaningful for everyone involved. Wherever resources or opportunities change hands, there’s a power gradient that creates potential for exploitation and abuse. In the philanthropy world, this harm ranges from funders and implementers supporting programs that inadvertently do harm to communities, to strife within the communities themselves as a result of new power imbalances or reinforced ones. There are also issues that predate the funding relationship but now become the donor’s concern as well — and when those issues are culturally-rooted, it’s an extra sticky situation. Even though the history of the term stems from looking out for children and other groups who may be vulnerable to abuse, safeguarding should be for everyone reached and impacted by the work we do as non-profits, social enterprises, and funders working to improve lives and advance positive change in the world.

Confidence and culture
Given the ripple effects that money tends to have, particular attention should be paid to its movement: programs that include cash and other benefits can create situations where community members or organization staff may feel compelled to overlook safeguarding concerns. Organizations should be aware of power imbalances and take steps to mitigate them, such as ensuring that complaints mechanisms are accessible to all parties regardless of their position. Confidence instilled within and outside the organization allows for open channels of communication about matters of concern. This ought to be built into an organization’s culture as a core value and reflected throughout, from hiring practices to decision-making processes, thus promoting transparency and accountability. As Segal Family Foundation’s learning and impact director Gladys Onyango points out, it is important in the context of Africa to also address the colonial past and consider how this legacy has shaped dominant systems, culture, and practices in the philanthropy sector — and contributed to harm. Having structures that enable those reached by programs to retain agency and dignity in how they are served is key to tackling systemic flaws that contribute to safeguarding issues in the sector. After all, the point of safeguarding is to ensure that the problematic power structures and dynamics existing in the world around us are replicated neither in our organizations nor in the programs and initiatives we fund as donors.

The ingredients of meaningful safeguarding also include an awareness of cultural norms, values, and beliefs and their variations across communities. Philanthropic organizations need to be sensitive to these differences and ensure that their safeguarding policies and practices are actually responsive to local needs. A key part of this is acknowledging the role of language and how barriers to comprehension can pose a challenge to effective safeguarding. Organizations must ensure that all safeguarding policies, training materials, and communication channels are linguistically accessible to all involved parties (their staff, the constituents, and the communities they serve) at a widely-consumable proficiency level. It is essential that everyone understands what safeguarding is, why it matters, and how to use the policies to uphold their safety and welfare and that of others. Speaking of accessibility, it is crucial to also consider those with disabilities and create avenues that allow for their full participation in safeguarding processes.

Local collaboration and continuous learning
Communities and local organizations already have existing practices for keeping people safe, whether formally documented or not. It is important, Onyango emphasizes, that philanthropic organizations understand and build on these, rather than imposing one-size fits all approaches. This is also more respectful on the part of organizations towards a community. Safeguarding should be in the genuine interest of limiting the risk of abuse and harm arising from the dynamics created by funding. Compliance by local parties should not stem from fear of losing said funding, and it is on funders to create an environment that does not instill this. Philanthropic organizations should look to team up with fellow organizations and other invested parties to share best practices and develop effective strategies, engaging local partners in the design and implementation of safeguarding measures. By approaching the practice collaboratively, organizations can better understand communities’ needs and perspectives, thus creating better systems for all. The concept of interconnectedness applies not just to external relations but also within, given how safeguarding is linked to other elements of organizational development. Building safe organizations and safe programs can require change in leadership practices, new policies, and addressing gaps in program design and delivery, among other measures — all of which take time and commitment to realize. Pressure to show results can prove harmful by inadvertently encouraging half-measures for the sake of compliance; this where the long view pays off, Onyango advises.

When issues do arise, as they are wont to, response should be quick and appropriate in concrete ways. Knowing how best to do this comes from being open to continuous learning: regular review of safeguarding policies and procedures ensures they remain effective and up-to-date with best practices. Onyango invites funders to continually reflect on how certain philanthropic practices might be contributing to the problem, for instance:

  • highly restricted funding that limits an organization’s flexibility and ability to respond to their constituent’s urgent needs
  • pressure to show impact at all costs that might lead to unethical data collection and storytelling practices
  • philanthropic organizations’ often power-laden interactions with communities during site visits
  • pressure on grantee organizations to scale without having the right foundations and safeguards in place, etc.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to safeguarding. Tailoring approaches is a journey for both philanthropic organizations as well as local partners and communities. At SFF, we have been on this journey from before our official safeguarding policy and procedures were developed and instituted in 2019; since then, we have taken the time to reflect, and have shared our observations in an article about walking the talk. Later this month, our learning and impact lead Gladys Onyango will be in conversation with Funder Safeguarding Collaborative’s director Dr. Karen Walker-Simpson, delving into the topic at the 2023 Skoll World Forum. Their session will “explore how foundations can implement safeguarding with grantee partners in positive, transformative ways that go beyond compliance.”