Penny Wilson: We don’t talk enough about power in the voluntary sector

Many charities exist because people face systemic disadvantage, but they don’t do enough to address this within their organisations

Penny Wilson
Penny Wilson

The late politician Tony Benn was a divisive figure in politics. But he was a relentless campaigner and a believer in democracy, and he was very suspicious of power, in all its forms.

Power is a thing we probably don’t talk about enough in the voluntary sector. It’s a central theme in many of the problems we seek to address. A lot of charities exist precisely because there are communities of individuals facing systemic disadvantage because they lack power.

But we often don’t do enough to share it within our own organisations.

If you’re a trustee on a charity board, you hold a lot of power. You can sack the chief executive, if you like. There'll be hell to pay if you do, but you can do it.

The best governance structures should involve some way of allowing the beneficiary group to hold the board to account with regard to how that power is used. 

When faced with someone who held power, Tony Benn asked five questions: What power do you have? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you hold it? To whom are you accountable? How do I get rid of you?

For many charity boards, the first three questions are easy to answer. The last two, not so much. In a good governance structure, all stakeholders should easily be able to answer all five.

Benn's main point was simple. If you exercise power on someone else's behalf – as all charities do – then, as much as is practically possible, you should answer to those people. Ultimately, they should have the power to get rid of you.

The advantage of this is immediately obvious. It keeps the trustees honest and forces them to keep the executive honest if they know that ultimately someone else can remove them. That is why I suspect that, of Benn's five questions, the last was comfortably his favourite.

I can’t see any argument with the theory. If you don’t believe that final power should rest with ordinary people and that bottom-up accountability is a good thing, I would probably invite you to find another sector to work in.

But this often doesn’t happen in charities, for two main reasons.

The first (and more acceptable) reason is that handing off power is one of those things that is easy to say, but not always easy to do. With animal charities or children’s charities, the service users might lack the capacity to vote the trustees out. In charities for which the beneficiary group is in another country, or is very ill, or is just very hard to define, it's not exactly easy to hand power over.

Even if these disadvantages don’t apply, it’s still hard to get power to the right place. Those being given power might not want it, for example. Holding people accountable is a boring, tedious, time-consuming job. Most people don’t want to.

And structures that exist to devolve power often don’t devolve it to the right place. It can easily end up in the hands of a small, highly engaged, unrepresentative clique.

There's a strong argument that charity boards shouldn’t just be handing some kind of checks-and-balances power to service users. They should be made up of service users. But this, too, can go wrong. Service users often have entrenched interests and, in many cases – professional associations are the most obvious example – the group charities serve will lack the diversity of outlook and experience they need for good decision-making. 

For this reason, I would generally be cautious when talking about electing trustees from the membership alone. We need a mix of people on our boards: service users and those with other relevant skills, knowledge, networks and experience (including lived), recruited from different corners of society. 

None of these ought to be deal breakers. They need careful thought, but they can all be worked around. The more common and more serious reason why many charities don’t devolve power is that they haven’t thought much about it, or they have thought about it but simply don’t want to.

A lot of charities are guilty of this, but I think we can safely say that the foundation sector has the biggest problem. In too many cases, half the board of a grant-making charity has the same surname as the charity, and the other half used to until they got married. Power has been devolved precisely nowhere.

This is human nature, of course. We like having power. We don’t much like giving it away. It’s pretty rare that people go out of their way to beg for more accountability.

This can be a real problem when things go wrong. Unless the governing documents say otherwise, trustees are accountable to the courts and the Charity Commission, and to no one else. The commission is often a poodle in this situation because it can only enforce the law, and unfortunately there’s often nothing unlawful about running your charity extremely badly, so long as you keep a proper record that you're doing it.

None of this feels right. Too much of it feels rooted in a 19th-century vision of philanthropy and beneficence. Both the law and practice feel out of step with what the sector says it believes.

So ask yourself this: "How would our service users get rid of our trustees, if they were running this charity really badly?"

If the answer is "they couldn’t", then perhaps it’s worth thinking about how to change that.

Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting on Board, a charity that focuses on trustee recruitment

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in