The full scale of the fallout from a dramatic leadership crisis at Amnesty International emerged on 4 June, with news that the NGO is to make almost 100 redundancies as it sets about an urgent restructuring programme.
As News & Views reported in a previous blog, Amnesty’s entire, seven-person leadership team resigned as one in February, following the publication of a damning report from KonTerra Group that disclosed a “toxic” workplace culture at the humanitarian organisation, starkly at odds with its underlying mission.
Indeed, many of the report’s findings pointed to a catastrophic breakdown of trust between the NGO’s senior management and staff. (The factors behind such shifts in employer-workforce relations are investigated in new research from the Institute of Leadership & Management, which examines levels of trust that workers have in their leadership teams.)
In a statement carried by the online arm of Third Sector magazine,  a spokeswoman for the NGO explained: “Amnesty International is facing a serious budget deficit that must be urgently addressed. Even though membership of Amnesty is increasing worldwide, funding for the international secretariat has reduced. Unfortunately, it will have to cut its expenditure, while at the same time ensuring future priorities. We can confirm that there will be up to 95 redundancies.”
She added: “This is a painful and difficult decision. We will now work closely with staff and the union over a formal three-month consultation period to look at the restructuring proposals. Every effort will be made to minimise job losses and we will do everything in our power to support affected staff.”
In a withering response to the statement, Unite union regional coordinating officer Alan Scott described the job losses as “devastating”, and cited the budgetary woes spawned by Amnesty’s former leaders as the root causes of the trust meltdown.
“The organisation’s senior management has a made a dangerous habit of irresponsible overspending and over-scoping,” he said, “leaving staff to suffer the costs – first with their wellbeing and now with their jobs. The problems of wellbeing and the financial crisis are symptoms of a leadership that continuously made decisions that it could not afford, in terms of budget, workload and responsibility of care.”
With financial management being one of the greatest leadership challenges that NGOs and charities face, what should senior teams in the third sector learn from the problems that Amnesty have encountered?
Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Failures of small businesses are regularly attributed to two sets of reasons: i) poor customer and/or market understanding, and ii) poor financial management. Those factors would hold true for any other type of business or organisation.”
She explains: “Amnesty have clearly not grasped the absolute imperative to manage their finances correctly. It is vital to understand precisely how much funding is at your fingertips, and to have in place processes that will enable you to decide between alternative strategies or courses of action. For an organisation like Amnesty, the opportunities to invest in and run campaigns are going to be very limited. So you have to make choices – and how you make those choices is really important. For a charity with a clear mission and sense of purpose, it must be even harder to make those tough decisions – which would often involve saying ‘No’ to causes it would feel a natural inclination to support.”
Cooper notes: “Leaders must strike a balance between that wider sense of purpose and the daily managerial minutiae they must address to keep the lights on. In our previous Amnesty blog, we highlighted the organisation’s inattention towards certain fundamentals of management and leadership, and conjectured that the NGO’s sense of higher purpose had transcended day-to-day matters – paving the way for intolerance and a lack of kindness. That is the risk that organisations incur when the bigger picture of the mission overwhelms the smaller picture of staff wellbeing.
“Even senior leadership teams – however powerful they think they are, or indeed may be – have to make open and transparent decisions, and be accountable for them. The value of processes that exist to support a business and secure its future cannot be downplayed or dismissed. So there are two, main threads to this story: firstly, a lack of understanding about the absolute necessity for careful and prudent financial management; and secondly, the notion that if Amnesty’s leaders were truly aware of the need to keep people in work, and understood their stewardship role with respect to those jobs, they may have been far more mindful to weigh up what they wanted to do against what they were able to do.
Cooper adds: “The absence of a robust approach to decision-making processes has serious consequences – and in any example of poor management, those consequences often play out to the cost of frontline staff.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on decision making
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Image of protestors holding Amnesty International banner courtesy of Tomasz Bidermann, via Shutterstock