Opinion: Hot Issue - Should companies be given the right to vote at charity AGMs?

Last week, the Charity Commission recommended that a greater number of charities should consider taking corporate members on to their boards and giving them voting rights at charities' AGMs.

YES - Neville Brownlee, head of regulatory reports, Charity Commission

Charities have told us that they feel this type of membership brings great benefit. Corporate members aren't solely commercial firms; they are more likely to be other charities and bodies such as local authorities.

There are a large number of corporate charities, for example, Friends of the Earth Trust and the NCVO.

The nature of voting systems is, of course, crucial. If a one-member, one-vote system is in place, then it's very difficult for corporate bodies to dominate. It's also worth pointing out that one of the main criticisms from charities about all types of membership is that it's not helpful when members don't exercise their voting rights.

Our work shows that different types of membership bring different types of benefit, and stresses the need for clear governance arrangements understood by everyone involved. Charities told us clearly that corporate membership can bring with them greater influence, additional fundraising opportunities and expertise they might otherwise lack. The issue is not about multi-nationals hijacking charities - it's about charities looking at their membership structures and making sure they are as effective as they can be.

NO - Craig Bennett, head of corporate accountability campaign, Friends of the Earth

Whether it is PPPs, the PFI, or just plain old corporate globalisation, the corporate sector is having an ever-greater influence on all aspects of life. It is more important than ever that charities operate - and are seen to operate - in their charitable interest rather than in the interests of corporations. And if a company's motivation for being involved in a charity is altruistic then it should be seeking nothing in return.

This is not to say that there should be no relationship at all between the two sectors. But we shouldn't forget that while company directors have legal financial duties to shareholders, they do not have comparable duties to the environment, at present, despite the campaign by the Corporate Responsibility Coalition calling for just this.

Of course, charities should be accountable to their members. But it is important that those members are guided by the aims of the charity, and not the interests of their employers. Until we have genuine legal parity in company law across the three pillars of sustainable development, it is naive to think that companies will treat all three with equal importance.

Until then, charities would be wise to defend their independence fiercely.

NO - Ben Kernighan, director of services and development, NCVO

While corporate members can and do make a significant contribution to the work of charities, they should not be part of governance by voting at AGMs. Trustee boards often include people with a business background; they are extremely valuable to the sector, but act as individuals, not company representatives. Independence is the issue here.

As long as charities are clear about the distinction between voting and non-voting members, there is no conflict between having corporate members and developing the active and engaged membership the commission is calling for. The NCVO offers its corporate and public sector affiliates expert information on the sector, and access to networking opportunities - it doesn't offer them a say in the organisation's governance. The estimated 9,000 charities in England and Wales that engage with corporate members already understand the benefits.

The NCVO launched its corporate and public sector affiliate schemes in response to our members' need to engage with these sectors. We would encourage other charities to consider widening their membership where it can benefit their mission. However, if the sector is to retain its independence, not all members can be equal.

YES - Matt Shardlow, conservation director, Buglife - The Invertebrate Conservation Trust

Buglife has 19 corporate members that are company members with full voting rights. However, all are charities or not-for-profit organisations that share the aim of preventing invertebrate extinctions and maintaining sustainable invertebrate populations. Having corporate members creates opportunities for working closely with organisations with shared objectives and gives Buglife authenticity.

Sustaining biodiversity is still not given as high a priority as economic development and environmental charities have to be careful that their objectives are not muddied by financial imperatives. Rare beetles, for example, do not complain or take legal action if they are pushed towards extinction and we are perhaps the only organisation that would do so on their behalf. If we were to concede to a corporate member's aspirations to endanger the beetle because there were financial benefits for them, then we would be failing to fulfil our aim.

Hence, we have a second category - the associate corporate member - without voting rights or full company membership, for organisations to whom we retain the ability to hold contrary views.

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