When Age Concern England got into difficulties over Heyday, its ill-fated lifestyle venture for those approaching retirement, the charity's leadership adopted the ostrich position: the decisions were reasonable, the losses justifiable, the criticism all got up by the press. The upshot was a report by Sir Christopher Kelly that said there had been a significant failure of governance and criticised an element of defensiveness in the Age Concern culture.
Fortunately, the conclusion of the affair coincided with the charity's merger with Help the Aged to form Age UK. This offered an escape route and the chance of a new start. But now, less than two years after the amalgamation, Age UK also finds itself at risk of reputational damage and is exhibiting some of the behaviour that characterised the Heyday affair: a reluctance to give a full account of events or to take decisive action to halt any damage.
The issue is the decision by the charity's chief executive, Tom Wright, to take the unpaid chairmanship of RHC Advantage, a consultancy that advises on marketing to older people. Unease caused by this increased when it turned out that RHC had supplied a research report to the Peverel Group, a property company that has been criticised by Age UK. Now there's a new twist: Age UK has been obliged to apologise to Peverel and to correct some of its criticisms.
A key aspect of charity governance is that conflicts of interest should be avoided in both fact and appearance. There is no suggestion that anybody has done anything wrong here. It's just that the situation doesn't look right, and the longer it continues the more unease there is likely to be, both internally and externally. People with long experience in the sector say they cannot understand why the day job at such a big and important charity is not enough. The charity points out that Wright's work at RHC was approved by the chair. That doesn't automatically make it wise.