OPINION: Who can be a true mediator?

PETER STANFORD, a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

The biggest single cause of under-achievement in charities is discord between the chief executive and the chair. Having held both posts, I've inadvertently become something of an expert, though in my case of course it was all my fault (I'm a guilt-ridden Catholic with an inbred need to confess).

The chairs of the 185,000 charities in this country are a little bit like magistrates - they have great power but often little expertise when they act out of good will and a concern for the greater good of society.

They could do with a lot more training and so are rarely perfect, but because of the structure of the voluntary sector they are the least bad alternative. And chief executives can be inspiring, dynamic, destructive, autocratic and infuriating all in the same breath.

I sometimes think that what charities need is their own version of ACAS to smooth over differences between chairs and chief executives when a dispute arises.

In recent times, Acevo has been positioning itself as just such a service and producing dispute resolution guidelines for when the twin peaks at the top of the charity erupt in anger.

Yet at the same time Acevo has also been operating as an informal trade union for chief executives along the lines of the First Division Association of senior civil servants. Witness the comments (Third Sector, 10 July) of its chief executive on the recent (much publicised) removal of the chief executive of Shelter. It has weighed in behind its man which it is, of course, quite entitled to do, but such a public response then makes it very hard for Acevo also to be the neutral third party between chairman and chief executive.

Perhaps the answer is to have two different organisations - a trade union standing foursquare behind people who are in one of the loneliest jobs in the world and an arbitration service where those personality clashes that can waste so much charitable energy might be diplomatically defused.

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