Ashley Mitchell, chair of the Otto Schiff Housing Association

Ashley Mitchell talks to Kaye Wiggins about confronting 'unproductive and political' colleagues and closing his charity down

Ashley Mitchell
Ashley Mitchell

When later this year Ashley Mitchell steps down as chair of the Otto Schiff Housing Association - a charity that supports survivors of the Holocaust - he will be able to look back on a controversial tenure.

Since he became chair 12 years ago, the charity has sold all seven of the properties that it owned: five care homes and two blocks of sheltered housing. All of its staff have either resigned or been made redundant in that time, and the charity is currently in the process of giving away all of its money to other charities so that it can close down.

So far, it has given £18m to Jewish Care and £17m to World Jewish Relief, and it will give away a further £8m before it eventually closes down. Mitchell says that will happen in about five years.

"Internecine warfare"

"When I became chair, the charity's care homes were antiquated and it was running at a significant operational loss," he says. "It turned out that there was internecine warfare there. The second tier of management told me they would leave if I didn't get rid of the chief executive - let's just say they didn't think much of his management capability. In the end he left of his own volition."

Mitchell says a drastic approach was his only option. "We could have tried to get philanthropists involved to keep the charity going, but unless we raised significant amounts we would just have been putting off closure," he says.

"We couldn't go public because we had to get it done"

Once he had decided that the charity would close down, Mitchell set about negotiating the best price for its property instead. One of its buildings was valued at £2m, but planning restrictions meant it could be used only as rented accommodation for elderly people.

Mitchell negotiated the removal of the restriction, then sold the building for £30m to a commercial developer, who is set to turn it into luxury homes. "The beneficiaries didn't know what we were doing at the time," he says. "We couldn't go public because we had to get it done. But once we had done it, far from being controversial, it was welcomed because it meant we had much more money to give to other charities."

"Work with me or fight me"

Mitchell took similarly drastic steps in his previous post as chair of the charity World Jewish Relief, which he started in 1996. "There had been a bust-up in the charity and I was brought in as the chair to sort things out," he says. "The charity's income was in rapid decline and there was no strategic plan.

"There was a lot of highly charged internal politics. It was extremely unpleasant. There were about 20 employees and I got rid of virtually all of them, including the chief executive. I also got rid of half the trustees."

Asked why he took such major steps, Mitchell says: "The staff and trustees were being unproductive and political. A lot of the trustees saw it as a networking thing and weren't doing anything useful for the charity.

"I told the chief executive that she could either work with me or fight me. She chose to fight by trying to undermine me; but I won in the end."

Closing a charity down

Mitchell says his experiences have influenced his views about charities and trusteeship. "I don't differentiate between charities and businesses," he says. "Trustees should behave in the same way as the board of directors at a company: they should make sure resources aren't wasted."

He adds that too few charities are prepared to close down once their work is no longer effective. "Charities often seek to perpetuate their own existence, rather than thinking about how the needs of their beneficiaries can best be served," he says.

"Our first objective is to help victims of Nazi persecution, and that client group is dying off. In 10 or 15 years' time, there will be none left, so we've decided to give them as much help as possible immediately, by funding the charities that are best placed to help them."

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