Peter Stanford: Common sense can mitigate turf wars

It can rein in egos, cut through self-justification, insist on reasonable safeguards and judge proportion, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Turf wars between trustee boards and a charity's staff are an unattractive fact of life in our sector. We might do all we can to protect against either an overbearing chief executive or a board that is too keen to roll up its sleeves and get down to the nitty-gritty, but it still happens – usually when chair and chief executive fall out. We've all seen it.

Quite how hard it is to guard against such situations, however, is highlighted by the recent National Audit Office report on the Charity Commission. The latter has been having a tough time of it, having been judged in a December 2013 report by the NAO to be an ineffective regulator.

This new report notes an improvement in that regard, but also points out with concern quite how involved the commission's board has been in what might normally be regarded as executive functions.

In the face of a crisis of confidence at the commission and a change of leadership including a new(ish) chief executive, the NAO concluded that such trespassing by the board was justified – but it added a sharply worded warning that the board's "continuing involvement in executive matters for an extended period could limit its independence", which it says "is critical to its role of holding the executive to account".

If they can't get it right at the Charity Commission, I can't help thinking: what hope is there for the rest of us? The key appears to be to decide what constitutes a crisis and what therefore provides the trigger for the board to take on executive functions.

If a trustee has special knowledge of, for example, IT, should he or she be involved in the purchase of computers or other IT equipment for the charity? I suspect the NAO would say no, having read its new report. How could the IT staff then be held to account by the board if the new systems crashed? They would point a finger of accusation at the trustee who had worked with and advised them.

And yet, when a small or medium-sized charity is about to make a major purchase of computer or other IT equipment, what better way to defray some of the costs of paying for an outside expert than to seek the advice of a suitably qualified board member?

And 99 times out of 100, it will all go off without a glitch. So is there a justification for adopting a stereotypical health and safety mindset and saying "no, can't do that, because there is a risk, however minute"? I'd say no.

What is required here is the single most important quality that is needed on a trustee board – common sense. It can rein in egos, cut through self-justification, insist on reasonable safeguards and judge proportion.

But it can't be legislated for. It is impossible to measure by all those ridiculous impact assessments that we all now have to waste money on. We simply know it when we see and hear it.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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