Editorial: Disputes that can eclipse the cause

The row over the dismissal of Tom Henderson at ShelterBox should not be allowed to damage the work of a ground-breaking relief charity, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

In our latest Extra section on leadership and governance, the experts make soothing noises about the relations between chairs and chief executives. Tensions may often lurk, they say, but in general hard times focus the mind and people pull together.

So it's ironic that in the same edition, on pages 8 and 9, we also tell the recent story of ShelterBox, where a dispute has become so severe that the chief executive has been dismissed by the trustees and a bitter employment tribunal case is now in prospect. A further irony is that the chief executive is also the founder, Tom Henderson.

In some ways it's a story that's been heard before and will be heard again. Someone has a brilliant idea for a new charity, gets it up and running through sheer determination and force of personality and builds it up over the years. There's a sense that he or she is the charity.

But as the organisation matures and grows, new people are brought in and its governance and procedures, quite properly, change and develop. The charity becomes much more than one person and its activities and identity evolve over the years.

This can put enormous strain on individuals and relationships, as seems to have happened in this case. From the evidence so far, the breakdown seems to have been caused not so much by the original dispute as by the way it was handled and the personality clashes that it brought to the surface.

But the priority must be the charity rather than the individuals involved. ShelterBox is a genuine ground-breaker. It was the runner-up in the Most Innovative Charity category in Third Sector's Britain's Most Admired Charit.ies awards last year. It is one of the deserving charities in this year's Daily Telegraph Christmas appeal.

Henderson now says he will set up a new and even better disaster relief charity, and maybe that will work too. But it would be a shame if his departure from ShelterBox damages the outstanding contribution it makes in disaster zones when the floods and earthquakes strike.

- Read our analysis on what's happened at ShelterBox

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