NEWS IN FOCUS: Democracy faces scrutiny - Attempts by charities to allow their members to have more of say could lead to major problems down the line, says Mathew Little


Democracy is both a source of attraction and fear for charities.

The goals of user representation and accountability, tempered by concerns about the potential domination of the charity by short-sighted beneficiary interest groups and even, in the famous case of the RSPCA, infiltration by factions essentially opposed to the aims of the charity.

The RNIB's recent governance changes and introduction of a mass-membership scheme illustrate these conflicting impulses.

New members are given the right to vote for 20 per cent of a 90 member consultative assembly, which will in turn elect 18 of a new slimmed down board of 24. Enough democracy to find out what its members want, but sufficient checks and balances to disregard those wishes if necessary. As the charity's head of governance James Rogers says members will have quite a big say but "not an exclusive one".

But Joe Saxton, head of not-for-profit services at the Future Foundation, regards such a halfway house to full user democracy as a "cop out". "Either trustees say we trust our members to elect the board or they don't,

he says.

Saxton, who was head of communciations at the RNID when the charity introduced a membership scheme in 1998 giving members the right to directly elect board members, believes in the principle of one person one vote. Charities, he argues, if they accept the democratic principle have to learn to take the rough with the smooth, to accept that trustees may be elected who they would not necessarily have chosen to appoint.

But democracy cannot be left solely to the people. It is a system that needs to be managed by the charity to make sure that the board contains "a balanced set of axes to grind".

"You need to make sure that the right people stand for election,

says Saxton. "Look for them and ask them, don't leave it all to chance. Otherwise you will get a board of people who spontaneously arise. It may not be the perfect system."

Members, Saxton asserts, should elect the majority of trustees but a minority also need to be co-opted to ensure there is an adequate set of professional and business skills on the board.

Such a system of managed democracy balanced by the infusion of necessary skills avoids the pitfalls of absolute user representation, which can lead to stasis within a charity and unwillingness to change or reform.

"User representation has been seen as the Holy Grail but having users on the board brings its own problems,

says Saxton. "If you have all users on the board, you will have a board that won't ever want to shut services because members have a personal interest in keeping them running."

Diabetes UK, which is governed by a board solely elected by its 185,000 membership, is planning to move to a system similar to the RNIB's where members are consulted but kept at arm's length from the seat of power.

Proposals due to be considered by the charity's board later this month include cutting the number of board members from 31 to just 12. Eight will be elected by a representative council, which itself is elected by the membership and meets once a year, and four will be co-opted for their skills.

But even the eight elected members will need to have relevant experience such as organisational management skills designated by a trustee sub-committee.

Diabetes UK's chief executive Paul Streets explains that the directly elected board did not have the correct spread of professional expertise to oversee the management of the charity. "With a 31 member representative board it was completely in the lap of the gods whether you had the right skills,

he says. "The treasurer actually had to be co-opted because a qualified accountant wasn't elected."

Streets says a skills-based board will also be better equipped to hold the senior managers of the charity to account. "I hope the new board will give me a much harder time,

he says.

In deciding to set up a governance system which consults members rather than giving them full democratic powers over the policies of the charity, the RNIB took account of the experience of the RSPCA, says Rogers. The RSPCA had a members' democracy which was targeted by highly organised pro-hunting supporters in an attempt to shift its policy of opposition to bloodsports.

Members of the Countryside Animal Welfare Group (CAWG) joined the society, attended the annual general meeting en masse to defeat anti-hunt resolutions, and elected one pro-hunt member to the RSPCA's 25 member council.

Last June, the charity expelled former Olympic showjumper Richard Meade for running CAWG's campaign to infiltrate the society.

After winning a High Court battle to be able to question why applicants wanted to join the society, officials wrote to 600 CAWG members who had applied simultaneously. The majority did not reply resulting in 500 subsequently being refused membership.

The charity also introduced a rule that council members had to have been members of the society for five years and compelled those seeking election to declare their leisure activities involving animals in an attempt to weed out the pro-hunt lobby.

Membership applications are also monitored to pick up on organised entry tactics.

According to Saxton, attempts to protect charities from hostile influences can seal off the organisation from more positive dissident tendencies.

"The danger is that if you are looking to exclude a particular group, you inadvertently capture other people and throw out the baby with the bathwater,

he says.

He suggested that a better solution to infiltration is a membership drive to dilute the influence of the hostile group.

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