NEWS IN FOCUS: RSPCA internal row sparks concerns for governance

Annie Kelly

Conflict between trustees and senior management can hinder a charity's work. Annie Kelly on how disputes can cause lasting damage.

The RSPCA needs to make £8 million of cuts in spending by the end of 2004, but an impasse between management staff and trustees is threatening to plunge the charity into chaos, and raises wider concerns for the voluntary sector.

Director-general Jackie Ballard and her management team have been forced to come up with new cost-cutting proposals after initial plans to reform the existing regional structure were thrown out by the council in a meeting on 30 April. At the same time cuts at the headquarters were implemented, which will result in the loss of 13 director posts and the merger of several management departments.

Head office staff are becoming "increasingly desperate" to find viable ways to make the £8 million worth of cuts. They anticipate that the council will reject new proposals at its next meeting. These would involve shutting all RSPCA wildlife hospitals and slashing back the campaigning and prosecutions divisions.

The council has defended its decision to reject the regional reforms proposed last month by claiming that the damage that would be done to the RSPCA's grass-roots animal welfare work would outweigh the savings that would be made through the cuts.

With such different agendas, it is difficult to see how these issues between management and the council can be resolved. Part of the problem appears to be a mutual distrust between the two sides, but deep splits within the council itself have emerged.

Three trustees resigned when Ballard was appointed in November last year and councillors were quoted in the media as claiming that she had no management skills and would be unable to manage a charity with a £70 million turnover.

Ballard's task is exacerbated by the cumbersome and complex structure of the charity. The council includes 10 regional trustees each representing an individual province within the national framework, so allegiances to local branches were challenged by proposed reforms to the regional structure.

Joe Saxton, an ex-council member of the RSPCA and co-founder of think-tank nfpSynergy, says that the situation has arisen from a fundamental conflict of interest.

"Many RSPCA trustees are heavily involved in local operations and many are unable to recognise their duty should be to the national body and not their particular region," he says. "It's further complicated by the fact that each branch is a separate registered charity, each with different ways of doing things. Head office staff are up against deep conservatism about anything that could change local operations."

Linda Laurance, director at Charity Trustee Network, believes that problems such as this often arise in charities because trustees don't fully understand their role within the charity's infrastructure.

"The issue is not just about conflict between management and trustees, it's about conflict or misunderstanding within the trustee board about its proper role safeguarding the vision and purpose of the charity," she says.

"Often when trustees from the regions come on to a national charity board, they have difficulty knowing where their loyalties should lie."

Laurance believes that more communication between charity chief executives and chairs of councils or trustee boards could help to avoid serious conflicts.

"It's all about recognising boundaries and promoting communication," she says. "In-depth consultation is absolutely vital and key to this is effective discussion between the chair of a trustee board and the chief executive."

She also thinks that both the chair and chief executive should take part in one-to-one discussions with staff and trustees to explain the thinking behind important policy decisions.

Nick Aldridge, policy and communications officer at ACEVO, agrees. He says that chief executives are often the main channel of communication between the trustees and the rest of the charity, and that more guidance is needed to help them develop this role.

"Many staff still regard trustees as part-time amateurs with no understanding of how to run a business," he said.

"Often part of the problem is that there is no executive element on a charity trustee board, so chief executives have their work cut out trying to get their point of view understood."

Many in the sector believe that there needs to be a fundamental change in legislation to safeguard against conflicts between management and trustees that could result in time and money being needlessly wasted.

But Aldridge points out that the issue of governance was largely ignored by the Cabinet Office's Strategy Unit report suggesting it will probably be overlooked in any change of charity law.

"The only way we can try and change things is by communicating and promoting the charities that get it right and forming some standards of best practice that may encourage others to put their house in order," he says.

Laurance also advocates bringing in intermediaries when charities find themselves embroiled in internal struggles.

But Saxton thinks that the issue is too important for the sector to solve by itself. "The Charity Commission has never focused on this area of conflict that affects many charities, and which has the potential to seriously impact on the effectiveness and trustworthiness of organisations," he says.

An effective path out of conflict for charities such as the RSPCA may not be clear, but it is vital that the sector remains aware of the dangers that such internal wrangling can cause a charity.

"We need to resolve this problem because charities are getting damaged by this kind of political infighting," says Laurance.

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