is it taboo to talk about Bad Trustees?

This blog was inspired by another blog, that of @MMaryMcKenna

it really got me thinking about an issue I’ve felt uncomfortable with for a long time, namely the fact that some Trustees out there are well, just not up to the job.

I want to make it clear before I start that I do know that there are many brilliant Trustees out there. I’ve worked with them, I’ve been inspired by them and I hope when I’ve been a Trustee, the organisations I’ve worked with have found that I added knowledge and experience to the boards and helped the organisation achieve its objectives.

I have worked in and with the voluntary & community sector for about 20 years. In that time I’ve seen a lot of discussion about Trustees: how to get people to be Trustees, the relationship between the chair and chief exec, how to be a good Trustee but I’ve never seen anything that talks about the problem of Bad Trusteeship. By this I don’t mean Trustees who carry out criminal or fraudulent acts, I mean the ones that are ineffective, incompetent, unhelpful or just plain rude or nasty. I have to say I have thought a lot about whether to even write this as talking publicly about the fact that some Trustees aren’t up to the job seems pretty taboo. I’ve worried whether it could be used as a weapon by those people in Government who seem to be on a mission to undermine the voluntary and community sector at every turn. In the end however, I decided that this is something I feel very strongly about. It maybe just my experience, I may just have been unlucky but somehow I don’t think I am.

Below are just some examples from my own experience of Bad Trusteeship

  • A Treasurer who insisted the organisation must open a new bank account for every single project it did. They had 14 bank accounts and the treasurer moved money around between them all. No one but him had the faintest idea what was going on financially.
  • A Trustee who sexually harassed female members of staff at fundraising events and when the Chief Executive complained to the Chair about their behaviour was told that the members of staff should stop making a fuss and bring their husband with them next time.
  • The Chair of the organisation who thought the best way to deal with a complaint from a service user was to go round to their house and tell them they were no longer welcome on the organisations premises.
  • The Trustee who when talking about recruitment at a board meeting suggested that the organisation didn’t employ any women of child bearing age because “they’re always off sick or thinking about their children”
  • The Trustees of a sports association that owned a building where the fire doors were kept locked and blocked by sports equipment and who were using kitchen equipment to prop up lights dangling from walls.
  • The all male, all white board of trustees who when it was suggested that they need to diversify said that they had had a woman once but she never spoke and left after 6 months. This was taken as a sign that women just weren’t interested.
  • The trustees who when outvoted on organisational restructure leaked confidential emails to members of staff whose posts would be under review

Now none of the above is criminal or fraudulent, none of it could be reported to the Charity Commission but it’s hardly indicative of good practice. It’s certainly behaviour that is far less than should be expected of people who often are employers, own premises or assets and are responsible for large sums of money, often public money in the form of grants or contracts. It definitely in most cases contravenes the organisations own policies around equality and diversity or complaints or recruitment but if the rest of the Board don’t hold Trustees to account, then who else will?  And what if it is whole Board behaviour? Then what?

Does it actually matter if Trustees are behaving in the ways outlined above? Well yes it does, it matters because poorly governed organisations rarely provide the best outcomes for beneficiaries which is all that charities exist to do in my book. Charities routinely work with people who are disadvantaged, vulnerable or in need of help and support not available elsewhere. They deserve the best that organisations can give, “just good enough” is not enough and that goes for Trustees as well.

What we do about this I don’t know. The work of Young Trustees is a very good start as is CharityWorks but we need to do more. CVS are great at offering support and training around governance though their resources are increasingly under pressure and sadly it’s also been my experience that those trustees who need the most training and guidance are the ones least likely to accept it.

I don’t have any answers yet though I’m hoping other people might have suggestions but I do at least feel better for having got this off my chest.



3 thoughts on “is it taboo to talk about Bad Trustees?

  1. Add … the Trustee Chair who said after interviewing 5 candidates “I want to appoint X as she looks the best”. X was 3rd / 4th choice, so he didn’t mean on interview performance … !

    Horror stories aside, I’m always amazed at the amount of time Trustees devote in supporting their chosen charity and their general level of commitment.

    HOWEVER, bad Trustees make bad decisions and frequently they just walk away. As you point out where there is no criminality or fraud there is no enforceable liability. The charity is stuck with those bad decisions, which are often against the charity’s own policies.

    So … improved Board self-evaluations, better governance training, effective skills auditing, or more Trustee peer-networking? Yes, to all of those, but fundamentally Trustees must be held accountable to by the charity’s stakeholders.

    ‘Stakeholder Power’ has to be made more robust.

    How many funders have published why they stopped funding a charity? How many times are issues quietly ignored?

    How many beneficiaries put up with a poor service if the alternative is no service ? How many beneficiaries have an effective voice in the charity?

    CVS funding is being slashed and their role is not one of auditing and investigation anyway. Statutory funders are interested in service access first, service quality second and … governance controls are well down the list. With a few exceptions, due diligence by funders is generally quite poor.

    Who facilitates access to bring their funder and beneficiaries together … the funded charity ! Rotten apple’s can often present a near perfect skin that can be polished by yet more investment !

    So no easy answers.

  2. thanks Stuart, yes definitely no easy answers. I agree about the need for stakeholder power – charities absolutely must be held to account by the people who use them. You’re right, often there isn’t a choice, it’s that service or no service. Also, funders do have a role here, I’m pretty appalled at how often local authorities continue to fund a charity just because they’ve always done it without stopping to look at its effectiveness. Re CVS, I was seeing their role more around training and advice, not regulation.

  3. Yes, CVS have no management role for their members – the focus has to be on beneficiaries/users putting pressure on the commissioner’s decision making to effect funding changes. Perhaps it is time for a charity version of TripAdvisor !?

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