By any standards, the Terrence Higgins Trust is one of the charity success stories of modern times. It was set up to help people after HIV infection and Aids began to spread in the early 1980s, and is now both a major service provider and a campaigning organisation. Its current strategy is aimed at halting the transmission of the virus in the UK within the next five years.
But the employment tribunal case won recently by its former chief executive, Rosemary Gillespie, has brought to light the fact that there have been serious problems at the trust for a number of years. From the evidence available, these seem to have been caused at least in part by the linked factors of expansion, dominant leadership and insufficient governance.
Until 2013, the trust was led by Sir Nick Partridge, who was chief executive over the two decades when the fragmented HIV/Aids charity sector was being consolidated. A series of mergers and takeovers made it the largest charity in the field – expert, widely respected and something of a household name.
There was, however, another side to the success. This came into the public domain only as a result of Gillespie’s case at the employment tribunal, which ruled that she had been unfairly dismissed. In her witness statement she summarised the conclusions of a "listening exercise" that the trust had conducted.
The charity declines to publish the results of this exercise, but it seems clear that the board must have realised all was not well in or before about 2012. The exercise – 36 interviews and focus groups with stakeholders – was conducted by the consultant and former THT chair Simon Taylor in 2013 and reported at the end of that year, just as Partridge was leaving.
Gillespie’s account of its conclusions, which is not disputed by the charity, makes uncomfortable reading. It quotes the report saying the exercise "highlighted considerable disaffection with the THT, both externally and internally. There was seen to be a lack of transparency and openness, and an arrogance, lack of respect and insularity among some of the senior executives vis-à-vis other organisations and also staff and volunteers."
Gillespie said in her statement that she was recruited in April 2014 with a clear mandate to make changes that would address these problems, but immediately encountered opposition from two senior managers in particular. Sixteen months later, she was dismissed on the same day it was announced that the two were leaving under a compromise agreement.
The decision of the tribunal also makes uncomfortable reading, especially for Robert Glick, chair of the trustees since November 2014. Numerous aspects of his evidence were "not accepted" or judged "unsatisfactory", most notably his contention that he and other trustees had long-standing concerns about Gillespie’s performance and that an email praising her three months before her dismissal had been sent only to boost her morale.
It found that she had been unfairly dismissed for whistleblowing – drawing matters to the board’s attention that were a matter of public interest and potentially embarrassing to the charity, such as the large sums spent on an inquiry into the behavior of the two senior managers. Gillespie’s barrister, the employment law specialist Chris Quinn, said after the case that it illustrated a wide range of issues for employers: "It also provides a concrete example of the perils of submitting witness evidence that does not withstand scrutiny."
Glick will stand down in November. Since March the charity has been led by Ian Green, who has a strong track record in senior roles in the YMCA. He says that the issues raised in the listening exercise have been addressed and the charity is now on course, as the largest HIV/Aids charity, to show leadership in "a more humble, participatory way".
Green accepts that the charity might have been seen as arrogant and "rather predatory" in the past, but thinks that is no longer the case. He has, however, sent an email to the charity’s members paying a handsome tribute to Glick and saying that it the charity did not agree with the findings of the tribunal, although it has not so far said it is going to appeal.
On the plus side, the board did well to recognise problems and commission the listening exercise. It might have been that the trustees had got into the habit of leaving the affairs of the charity in the more than capable hands of Partridge. On the minus side, the tribunal decision makes it clear that the difficulties that arose after Gillespie’s appointment were dodged and botched.
The lessons for other charities would seem to be about the crucial relationship between board and chief executive. Boards need to keep a close eye on what is going on, even – perhaps especially – if the chief executive is successful and the organisation is growing. And when things go wrong, a board must deal honestly and straightforwardly with the chief executive, following best HR practice.
Such problems can, in their more extreme form, produce cases such as Beatbullying and Kids Company, where charismatic founders who successfully expanded their charities were left largely to their own devices by trustees who failed to notice what was going wrong. Both these charities collapsed. Fortunately, things at THT never got near to that stage.
Stephen Cook is contributing editor of Third Sector