Amnesty's open approach to change is commendable

Recent history is full of examples of failure and success at managing a major reorganisation, writes Peter Gotham

Peter Gotham
Peter Gotham

Craig Dearden-Philips wrote before Christmas about how planning can minimise the damage if a charity needs to close. In the example he gave, "the core business was tanking fast". This is often easier to see in hindsight, and even if it is obvious that the charity is under threat, the timing of any requisite action is often more difficult.

As I have written before in this column, keeping a charity's supporters and staff in agreement with the board's decisions is important, but not easy to achieve. Sharing information can be problematic and the same picture can be interpreted in different ways. Add in a dose of preset views, relationships that have developed over the years and some self-interest, and we have an approximation of many real-life situations.

As I read of the developing dispute about the future direction of Amnesty International UK and the "moral victory" claimed by the union at the organisation's recent EGM, I started to form a view based on my experience and, no doubt, prejudices.

Further reading uncovered extra layers to the story. Without wishing to make critical comment on such a difficult dispute, there seem to be aspects that will be relevant to many charities. Of course, some are more specific to Amnesty, such as how a national body works as a member of an international confederation - shades here of Britain and the EU.

At Amnesty, the concerns about long-term viability are set against a reluctance to cut jobs in core services. There is a wish to invest heavily in Asia, counterposed by a preference for the greater safety of taking small steps. The general climate of austerity and, I expect, technological changes are part of the background. All of this is being negotiated by what I perceive as a very open and democratic body that is locked in a dispute with a powerful trade union.

Successful transition

Moving on, to some extent, from Amnesty, bringing stakeholders onside is important for any organisation, and particularly one in crisis. Staff, volunteers, potential funders, beneficiaries and trustees are all part of the dynamic that can allow for a successful transition.

Conversely, all can cause such problems that closure becomes inevitable and potentially messy. In the case of a membership body, the risks from mismanagement of the decision- making process are even greater.

Reputational risk or opportunity will be key to engaging support from the wider community and those working closely with the charity.

Our perception of facts is often mutable. Goodwill and the degree of trust in those charged with governance is key to the management of any process of change. The sector's recent history is full of examples of failure and relative success at managing this aspect of major reorganisation.

From my partially informed perspective, Amnesty seems to be managing the debate in a very open manner. Let us hope that the outcome enables the organisation to move forward reinvigorated and with increased effectiveness.

Peter Gotham is a partner at MHA MacIntyre Hudson

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