NEWS IN FOCUS: Clarity will help to prevent conflict - The recent relationship breakdown at the Notting Hill Carnival Trust should serve as a warning to other charities, says Robert Gray


The widely-publicised problems of the Notting Hill Carnival Trust, which has seen its funding frozen following the complete breakdown in the relationship between its management and a group of its trustees, provides a stark illustration of governance in the voluntary sector gone awry.

A convoluted history of infighting at the charity came to a head last week. A trio of trustees led by Ansel Wong tried to prevent trust managers, including chief executive Claire Holder, from entering the charity's London offices by changing the locks, although this action failed to prevent staff from gaining access to the premises.

The trustee faction had been at odds with Holder and other members of the board for a long time, with acrimonious allegations flying in both directions. The truth of each side's claims will doubtless be the subject of much debate, but it is the bigger picture that will be of greater concern for most charity managers and trustees.

While Notting Hill's troubles are in part due to personality clashes and disagreements over policy, they also stem from its constitution. When this was written in 1997 it did not contain a clause that stipulated that a trustee could be removed from office for inappropriate behaviour or if a majority of the other trustees deem that the trustee in question is not fit to continue in the role.

It was only in December last year that a special meeting was held to insert such a clause, by which time a lot of damage had already been done. Additional trustees were appointed at another special meeting held on the same day with a view to ousting Wong and his camp. But Charity Commission rules say these new appointments are not valid because not all of the existing trustees were officially informed about the meeting.

"When the trustees began behaving badly we had to find a means by which they could be asked to leave,

says Holder.

Fortunately for most charities, working relationships between trustees and managers seldom deteriorate to such a degree. But there can often be friction.

"The problems usually arise when there is a misunderstanding over the demarcation of responsibility between the board and the management,

says the RNID's chief executive James Strachan.

The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO) accepts that greater understanding is necessary. It will publish a report called Leading the Organisation that will examine the relationship between the chairman and chief executive.

"We believe it's essential that there is clarity about the roles and responsibilities of the leaders of organisations, so that neither the chairman nor the chief executive oversteps the mark,

says ACEVO's chief executive Stephen Bubb.

ACEVO believes that a charity board must distinguish between the strategic issues, for which it is responsible, and the operational decisions that it delegates to the chief executive and management team. Sometimes, however, interests overlap but if this is discussed early in a relationship it is less likely to become a problem.

"It's a relationship that needs to be constantly negotiated and people don't always do that,

says Tesse Akpeki, head of the trustee and governance team at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations.

"Another dimension is that while the chief executive can often have a good relationship with the chairman the other trustees can feel left out of the picture."

Under the Commission's rules, if there is a dispute between management and trustees, trustees can continue to act provided they do so constitutionally.

Every charity should, therefore, ensure that its constitution prohibits any behaviour by trustees that may damage its interests - and trustees and managers should make sure they fully understand where their respective responsibilities start and end.

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