Living our values: Changing culture in aid organisations

6 September 2021

Cultivating compassion with accountability, solidarity with equity.

Despite ongoing conversations about safeguarding, diversity and toxic cultures within organisations, we in the aid sector have yet to instigate widespread changes in our practice when it comes to:

How organisations treat their staff, and

How we care for ourselves and one another

A July 2019 series of CHS Alliance focus group discussions led by Melissa Pitotti and Mary Ann Clements found a strong appetite to co-create an inclusive process to connect, reflect, share, learn and find solutions together. CHS Alliance decided to incubate an initiative to “Cultivate Caring, Compassionate Aid Organisations” or the CCCAO exploring the intersection of people management, mental health and organisational culture using the lens of care and compassion.

With support from CHS Alliance members, our partners and donors like the Government of Luxembourg, the Government of the Netherlands, and the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) we celebrate achievements made thus far, and share an exciting opportunity to get involved in the next phase.


Working well? Aid worker well-being and how to improve it

Looking back:

  • In November 2019 we launched a podcast called “Embodying Change, first as a 4-part guest series on “Change Making Women” then as its own standalone platform. The 13 episodes produced in Season 1 have been downloaded more than 1,000 times featuring conversations with experts in mental health, people management, mindfulness, staff care, human resources, duty of care, compassion, staff engagement surveys and verification. Season 2 has thus far focused on engaging leaders and crafting collaboration.
  • In January 2020, we published our mapping report called “Working Well? Aid worker well-being and how to improve it.” It found a wealth of valuable work underway that could be better known, connected, and resourced. A “lunch launch” event held in Geneva with support from Alliance member Plan International brought some of the experts identified in the report together to meet each other for the first time. This report has been downloaded more than 2,000 times 18 months since its publication.
  • In the second half of 2020 we held a series of regional, contextualised conversations in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Led by facilitators Mary Ann Clements, Nurhaida Rahim, Uma Narayanan (in partnership with CWS Asia), and Hope Chigudu people from over 80 organisations explored thinking about aid worker wellbeing in a variety of different contexts; elevated conversations about well-being within organisations and help them to develop ideas about how they might tackle these issues; and co-created ideas about how the sector can start to pay more attention to aid worker wellbeing and tackle some of these issues that will feed into the next phase of this initiative. Watch the lessons learned session HERE, and read the newsletter article featuring 6 top take-aways HERE. A facilitator’s guide used in the event will soon be available for you to facilitate your own contextualised conversations.
  • At the end of 2020, CHS Alliance and ICVA invited 15 humanitarian leaders from among their shared members to participate in a project exploring the risks and opportunities associated with staff well-being and organisational culture. Following interviews and focus group conversations, the resulting report, “Leading Well: Aid leader perspectives on staff well-being and organisational culture,” was previewed in December 2020 in a webinar carried out with PHAP and launched at the Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Weeks (HNPW). A CEO-donor roundtable was held on 20 May, with 19 CEOs and 9 donor representatives confirming support at the highest levels for a deeper and more sustain conversation to better support well-being and organisational culture.
  • On 20-21 May 2021, a virtual Global Gathering took place with the overarching theme of “Living our values: Care, culture and power in aid organisations.” More than 300 people in 56 countries registered for the event. Panels, sessions, workshops and practice sessions were held on the connections between the themes of care, culture and power, the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality & Accountability (CHS), mental health first aid, organisational transformation, leadership, data, mindfulness, and resilience. We pooled enough resources to fill 27 pages in a Resource Repository, which was previewed during a community sharing session. The event concluded with a collective visioning exercise for collaboration going forward.

Looking forward

In July 2021, we began a series of conversations to co-create a culture lab (or community of practice) to support and accompany peers who are working within their own aid organisations to cultivate supportive, accountable, and equitable organisational cultures. You are welcome to join us as we dive deeper into understanding our needs, creating a shared vision, building trust, and exploring areas for collaborative and experiential learning. Sign up for the 28-30 September CHS Exchange, at which Culture Lab will be featured in an Expo Booth. Please get in touch with Melissa Pitotti at for more information and to get involved.