A piece by Katie Gibbons in today’s Times:
The head of a leading domestic abuse charity that receives millions of pounds in government contracts has been accused of mismanaging funds and fostering a bullying atmosphere.
Sandra Horley, the chief executive of Refuge, is one of the country’s highest-paid charity bosses, with a total remuneration package of more than £210,000.
Whistleblowers accused Ms Horley of using charity resources to publish a book for her own financial gain and of hiring family members for sensitive roles. Senior management routinely bullied staff, it has been alleged. The claims were laid out in a letter sent to the charity trustees at the end of 2017 signed by 13 staff members. It has since been passed to The Times over concerns of inaction.
“For a charity that empowers women in its services, the situation in head office is unfortunately very different. The atmosphere is toxic,” they wrote.
Refuge provides specialist support to victims of domestic violence. Last year 44 per cent of its £14 million annual income came from local authority contracts, in addition to funding from individual donations and corporate sponsors such as Google. It helps about 6,000 people a year through emergency accommodation, community outreach programmes, specialist caseworkers, independent domestic violence advocacy and a 24-hour helpline. However, former employees speaking to The Times claimed that the head office was an “abusive” environment where staff were “belittled” by management. Staff would regularly cry at their desks or take time off because of anxiety, they said.
The letter to trustees states that between January and November 2017 18 of the 20 staff members in the fundraising team left. Former staff allege that they were sometimes encouraged to work through the night, going home only to change before returning. Several of the whistleblowers have since sought help for their mental health.
Ms Horley used “significant staff resource and time” to re-edit and publish her book on domestic violence, Power and Control, the letter states. Despite this, profits from the book, which included the charity’s logo, went to Ms Horley rather than to Refuge.
Ms Horley’s husband, Julian Nieman, is the charity’s sole photographer and conducts photoshoots in refuges used by vulnerable women. Her daughter, Samantha Nieman, was hired as an executive assistant without an interview, according to the letter.
The Charity Commission opened a compliance case in January last year after receiving a serious incident report. After an investigation the case has now been closed. Last year Maggie Rae, chairwoman of trustees, reassured staff that remuneration packages would be reviewed. Ms Horley’s package is still worth £210,000 to £220,000, 24 per cent more than in 2016-17.
The board of trustees commissioned an independent report by the Centre for Charity Effectiveness and a series of recommendations were made. Ms Rae told The Times that the charity’s board had accepted all of the report’s findings and that its executive had co-operated in the implementation of the recommendations. “As a result . . . Refuge is in an even better position to serve its beneficiaries,” she said. Ms Horley did not respond to a request for comment.
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