OPINION: Avoid making a dog's dinner out of disaster

Geraldine Peacock, a charity commissioner and a civil service commissioner

TV presenter Johnny Vaughan related recently how his prized Maserati suffered £8,000 of damage after he tried to haul his bulldog out of the passenger footwell. The dog slipped his grasp and jumped into the driver's side, while Vaughan followed it in from the passenger side. The dog landed on the accelerator, the car was an automatic and the gearshift was knocked, speeding it forward straight into the side of a skip. His insurance claim was then refused because the bulldog was not a named driver.

In the charity world we can face a range of tricky situations which lead to some poor person having to explain to the world what went wrong and why. More often than not, this is a tough task and, like Vaughan, we do not cover ourselves against the extraordinary. The temptation then is to shoot the messenger.

The phrase goes back as far as Sophocles and Shakespeare and we would do well to remember it when things go pear-shaped. For it is often the case that the person whose "foot is on the gas" at the time has been put in a position that demands more experience or competence than their managers have a right to expect. When spokespeople, particularly those from the front line, say the wrong thing and misrepresent an organisation's official position it is often because there has been inadequate investment in briefing and media training.

While these disasters are mercifully rare, their effects can be profound - not only for those directly involved, but for all staff in the organisation.

It only takes one such situation to arise for the resulting mistrust in that organisation's vision, strategy and management structures to create a major shift in culture. And it can also spiral into the public domain, sometimes causing irretrievable damage to reputations.

We must ensure we sustain a balance which enables our work to be cost-effective and well staffed, and we must also ensure that we balance individuals' professional responsibility with effective support. That means investing in things such as mission, culture, values, staff development, as well as managerial attitudes, structures and effective procedures.

If the foot on the accelerator should not have been there in the first place, charity leaders should do some soul searching, remember the phrase "bottom-up" and refrain from shooting the messenger.

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