When a group of chief executives of YMCAs from across England got together at a hastily arranged meeting in London yesterday, the only subject on the agenda was the leadership crisis at the movement's national body, YMCA England.
The gathering was called after Angela Sarkis, the national secretary of YMCA England, and David Bedford, the organisation's chair, both quit within a few days of each other after a simmering dispute (Third Sector, 16 April).
Sarkis had been off work for much of this year and was facing a possible inquiry into her performance when she left with a pay-off of at least £40,000. Bedford was facing a vote of no confidence from fellow board members after he orchestrated her departure, but kept most of the trustees in the dark about what was going on.
YMCA England is now searching for an interim chief executive - the first person approached has turned it down - and is conducting a review of the role of the national secretary, whose job involves running an organisation of 150 people while also representing the entire federation structure of YMCAs.
Letter of concern
The YMCA chief executives at yesterday's meeting were called together by a letter from a group of nine YMCA heads concerned about the effect the events could have on the overall organisation.
The letter, seen by Third Sector, described the "great surprise" of many delegates at the recent YMCA National Assembly, where they were handed a paper saying Sarkis's keynote speech had been cancelled and that she had left.
The lack of further information about her departure had served only to fuel rumours, the letter said. These rumours were about a "dysfunctional decision-making process, supposed block resignations and a sense of vacuum" at top levels in the YMCA.
The letter went on to say that the events had raised "serious concerns regarding the stability of governance within the national council". It also warned that the organisation could find itself reported to the Charity Commission if it fell into disarray. "We have a duty to inform regulatory bodies if we deem that there is evidence of significant regulatory failure," it said.
A spokesman for the YMCA, which had intended to make no public announcement about the situation, says it is good news for the organisation that yesterday's meeting took place.
"It is a positive sign that people are looking to come together and move forward," he says. "This is a matter that the chief executives want to reassure themselves on in terms of what the organisation's position is.
"Their worries come out of a passion for the movement and with thought to what a great organisation it can be. This is an opportunity for people to pull together and make that happen."
The top-level crisis at the YMCA began to develop early this year when Bedford irked board members by announcing that he had concerns about Sarkis's performance and would be initiating a review, but did not give them any further information.
Bedford is a former journalist who has been executive director at international health charity Project Hope UK and deputy executive director of Unicef UK.
Sarkis was off work at the time, and eventually responded by filing a grievance against Bedford, Linda Sharpe, vice-chair of the charity, and Chris Poulard, its treasurer. Once again, Bedford apparently declined to give the rest of the board further details about the nature of the complaint.
It is understood that he took legal advice about trying to achieve the departure of Sarkis on a consensual basis. Sarkis was resistant to the idea of leaving, but indicated that she would settle for a pay-off of one year's salary plus her notice period. Her annual salary was £80,000. An initial offer of £40,000 was made.
Once Sarkis's departure had been secured, board members expressed their unhappiness about how the situation had been handled.
An open letter from one trustee to Bedford, circulated among the board after news of Sarkis's departure, is understood to have criticised Bedford's leadership and said that the saga had damaged the credibility of both him and the board.
The letter also outlined concerns picked up by the trustee that the board was dominated by the three officers: Bedford, Sharpe and Poulard. The criticism levelled at the rest of the board was that it was unable to exercise much influence over the trio, the letter is understood to have said.
It is also believed to have said that the trustee was aware of other board members who had considered resigning over the situation.
There is also understood to be widespread concern in YMCA England that the national secretary's position is an impossible job, given that the incumbent has to balance the role of being a figurehead for the individual YMCAs that make up the organisation and the chief executive of a large organisation.
The YMCA spokesman confirmed that the national secretary's role would be reviewed. "The national board will be looking to review the role of the national secretary, and that will involve wide consultation before any announcement is made," he says.
"It is their intention to make an interim appointment to the position while this takes place."
Following the refusal of the first candidate to be approached, board members are expected to agree who else should be approached to take on the role at their next meeting on 26 April.
Sharpe's position as vice-chair remains unclear. She has stepped into the breach left by Bedford's departure, but sources indicate that she will stand aside at the next board meeting, when a new chair will be selected. She was unavailable for comment, as were Bedford and Sarkis.
- YMCA England describes itself on its website as "a leading Christian charity committed to supporting all young people, particularly in times of need".
- Founded in 1844, the organisation supports and represents the work of more than 140 YMCAs that operate as autonomous charities under its federated structure.
- It employs about 150 core staff and a further 250 work in its shops across the country.
- The charity - originally called the Young Men's Christian Association - provides support in areas such as housing, health, parenting, education and employment.
- It estimates that it is in contact with more than one million young people every year.
What the experts say...
The relationship that's key to a healthy charity
The most crucial relationships in a charity are often between the chair and the chief executive, and between the chair and the rest of the board, according to governance consultants.
They emphasised that their comments were general and did not refer to recent developments at YMCA England.
"The relationship between the chief executive and the chair is a key one in regard to the health of an organisation," says Linda Laurance, a governance consultant.
"The chair will usually have regular contact with the chief executive, and it is important that the two of them explore that relationship in areas such as their availability to each other. They should establish their expectations about how they will work together.
"Agreement should be reached when concerns arise about what should be shared, and with whom, and what should go back to the board and the senior management team."
Laurance said the chair was usually the line manager for the chief executive, but he or she performed that role for the board in as a whole.
"The board collectively is the employer," she says. "Unless it has given authority to the chair to make any major decisions regarding the chief executive, the responsibility for the appointment remains collective."
Consultant Martin Farrell says: "People need to be brave enough to have significant conversations with each other. At the point people start feeling concerned about a situation, they should be courageous enough to initiate conversations about it."
Psychotherapist and leadership consultant Amanda Falkson agrees that openness is vital and warns that the relationship between chair and chief executive can be difficult.
"It can be one of the most strained relationships in the sector," says Falkson. "To be healthy in both of those roles requires a great willingness to be open with each other."