Stephen Lee: Jonah and the Whale - the crisis of governance at the Institute of Fundraising

Stephen Lee, a former director of the IoF, defends his argument that some corporate members of the institute should have been expelled under its articles of association

Stephen Lee
Stephen Lee

There is perhaps little that can be worse in your professional life than to be on the receiving end of an attempted public humiliation by the chief executive of your professional body at its annual general meeting. That is what happened to me yesterday and, having been told categorically on three occasions by him that the institute did not have a category of corporate membership and that the Institute of Fundraising's board had no legal remit to investigate charity members, only individual members, I decided not to push the matter further.

I had raised what I considered to be an important (if not popular with the leadership) issue of governance of the IoF by its trustees. After all, article 29.2.2 of the articles of association requires that "each member shall agree to abide by the Code of Conduct". This is a requirement of continued membership of the IoF, and rightly so.

Article 13.3 says "the trustees shall make (and may alter) rules, to be known as the Institute’s ‘Complaints and Disciplinary Regulations’ for the purpose of handling and resolution of complaints and disciplinary matters relating to the conduct of members". Such a document exists and is downloadable on the IoF website – this I did.

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Article 29.5 sets out the standing of corporate members, a status of membership that I am assured by the chief executive is a figment of my imagination. It begins "An organisation admitted into membership…"; and article 29.6 states that "a person authorised under Article 29.5 may exercise (on behalf of the Corporate Member) the same powers as the Corporate Member could exercise if it were an individual member".

That seems pretty conclusive to me.

Article 10.4 provides the trustees with further guidance as to how they should treat disciplinary issues; it indicates that "the trustees shall delegate their powers in relation to the handling and resolution of complaints and disciplinary matters relating to the conduct of members in accordance with the Complaints and Disciplinary Regulations under Article 13.3". That is the authority to delegate their responsibilities to an internal committee, not to some other body.

When we come to look at the content of the grounds for investigation of disciplinary matters, the IoF complaints and disciplinary regulations state in sections 14 and 15 that grounds for disciplinary action include members conducting themselves in a manner that could be detrimental to the character or position of the institute, or where there had been a serious or repeated breach of the IoF's code of conduct or other rules.

Given the result of the various investigations conducted by the FRSB into possible breaches of the Institute of Fundraising’s Code of Fundraising Practice (which combines the Institute’s Code of Conduct with its various codes of practice), the Dogs Trust, British Red Cross, Macmillan Cancer Support, the NSPCC, Oxfam GB, NTT and Listen all appear to have engaged in a "serious" breach (or breaches, in some cases) of the code.

Why should these organisations, if they are members of the institute and enjoy the kudos of being so associated, not be capable of being held to account by their professional body? And why should the senior fundraising leaders within these organisations not be held accountable for their actions in a similar fashion? To do otherwise simply makes a mockery of self-regulation and the commitment of each and every member of the institute to the highest standards of professional practice.

Given these rulings, I believe that I spoke for many IoF members (small and medium-sized organisations, as well as many individual members) who have been appalled at the miscreant actions of a few large fundraising organisations and their agencies, which have had such a negative impact on all of us and on the profession of fundraising itself.

This is not a brave action on my part; it is simply the right thing to do. Further, I recognise that as one of just five remaining honorary fellows of the IoF, the highest membership accolade the institute can confer on an individual member, I can speak with no fear of retribution or career impediment.

That the trustees of the IoF have clearly not acted as the articles of association suggest they should is one thing, but to be attacked in public for doing so by the chief executive of my professional body, stating categorically that I am wrong to even broach the subject, is quite another.

The chief executive of the IoF is clearly of the view that it is the function of the FRSB and the soon to be launched Fundraising Regulator to specify when the IoF should discipline it members, and when it should not, and to tell us when someone should be a member of a separate, independently governed body, and when they should not. Go and ask the chief executives and trustees of those two organisations if they agree with that assertion – if you want a confused self-regulatory architecture, all of a sudden you’ve got one. The lawyers would have a field day.

The saddest point here is that I never even got to the real locus for the potential crisis in governance that now faces the trustees of the IoF.

In little more than a couple of days, we are informed, responsibility for the Code of Fundraising Practice will pass to the newly launched Fundraising Regulator.

I am not convinced the trustees have the power to make that transfer (see article 10.4 above), at least not without a special resolution at an AGM and a change in the articles of association that might have been achieved at this very AGM.

And even if the trustees are capable of making the transfer, and do transfer the code to the Fundraising Regulator, what are we left with? A professional institute with no apparent independent means to hold its membership to account – that will really advance chartered institute status.

Many years ago, Dick Wilson, a very wise sage and leader of the American Association of Fundraising Professionals (NSFRE in those days) took aside a young and inexperienced director of the IoF (me, as it happens) and offered the following advice: "One day, if you work hard and support the ideals of the professional association that you belong to, you will be accorded the status of a whale." He continued: "The whale can be of critical importance at times of crisis, because only the whale can play the following role – that is, to dive deep and steer clear of interference with those that follow you (they won’t welcome it, and it will not work), but at intermittent times of crisis it is your duty to surface, spout off and then dive deep once again."

Today, Jonah met the whale.

All I will say in conclusion is this – perhaps a charity chief executive who doesn’t bring a copy of the articles of association to his AGM should consider his own position.

Stephen Lee is professor of voluntary sector management at Cass Business School

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