This paper examines what social auditing has to offer Oxfam and similar organisations involved in the collection of charitable donations for international development and relief operations in terms of improving the quality of their work, increasing their accountability to stakeholders, and their capacity to achieve impact in terms of their institutional goals. In looking at the particular case of Oxfam, it discusses issues in relation to the establishment of social auditing with relevance for similar organisations.
The paper points out that since Oxfam is not a profit-making organisation, but one based on a humanitarian impulse, there are many ways in which it already lives up to the ideals of social audit. The paper lists areas of governance and systems where Oxfam is currently responding to the major principles of social audit, and some of the issues encountered in doing so. These principles have been defined by Zadek (1997) as follows:
Inclusivity, Comparability, Completeness, Evolutionary, Systems Integration (Embeddedness), External Verification, Communication and Continuous Improvement.
Each principle is examined to see what it offers Oxfam in terms of its principal concern – to improve the quality and impact of its work, and legitimacy, and what difficulties their application entail. The main aspects lacking at present are:a) a systematic consultation with stakeholders
b) independent verification c) the publication of results
To some extent, Oxfam's Trustees perform the second function, together with external consultants employed to carry out evaluations of its international development programme. The organisation's Annual Review provides public information regarding its work. Nevertheless, the wider publication of negative results, except to the professional and academic audience reached through such publications as “Development in Practice”, would certainly be new to Oxfam, as would the setting up of interagency standards or benchmarks.
The paper argues that rather than adopting social audit as a new cycle, a costly and time-consuming exercise, ways should be sought to ensure existing systems live up to its principles. Even this could become costly, and ways of doing this in a cost-effective manner need to be developed.
The other major issue for Oxfam is the enormity and diversity of its major stakeholders, ie those people it tries to benefit by means of its international development programme, and the contradictions which exist within them as a group, let alone between them and the other stakeholders of the organisation. Ways in which this could be overcome are suggested, such as consulting them within the remits set by organisational strategic plans, and continually developing greater clarity with regard to the kind of assistance the organisations offers, and taking decisions regarding the weighting to be given to different groups.
The issue of the publication of negative results in ways which reach the general public is more difficult. It could be resolved by careful decision-making regarding and management of the context in which information is disclosed. It is conceivable that the organisation would gain in its reputation by being seen to be honest even in the most difficult cases, and conversely lose if it were discovered to be hiding negative information. It is already relatively open at the professional and academic level, but needs to consider carefully if it is too cautious in relation to the general public.