Having worked in the charity sector for nearly 20 years, I’ve probably read more than my fair share of charity board minutes and, to be honest, few make truly riveting reading. The minutes of the now defunct Garden Bridge Trust are no exception. Nevertheless, they do give an interesting insight into the assumptions of the trustees and how things can go wrong if there’s not enough diversity and challenge at board level.
On reading the minutes it’s immediately apparent that the trustees had the kind of access to people in power that most charities can only dream of. The trust chair casually refers to putting in a call to the chair of the Charity Commission to find out how to get the charity registered, rather than battling with online registration like the rest of us. Another trustee comments on a chance meeting with George Osborne at a carol service, who assured them that the bridge would happen. The social circles of the trustees allowed them direct contact with key decision-makers and this was reflected in the self-assurance of their discussions, their certainty that things would go their way. This confidence was undoubtedly one of the reasons that the trustees got the project as far down the line as they did. It is also the reason they didn’t see the early warning signs of the project’s eventual collapse.
The Garden Bridge Trust board lacked the diversity of background and experience that a healthy board needs. While highlighting that there were risks, the chair regularly reassured trustees that the trust’s track record suggested it would be successful. There was no assertive counterbalance to this perspective. As judicial reviews dragged on, timescales drifted and estimated costs for the bridge escalated, the trustees marched on. There was a nod to community consultation, but there was no one at board level who was forcefully putting forward the concerns of this vital group of stakeholders. There was no real challenge to the prevailing view of the established trustee group. Trustees clearly thought that, because they'd spent so much money and managed to get the project so far, it was unstoppable.
In every new venture you have to have a level of stubborn single-mindedness, a conviction that it will work regardless of the hurdles. You sometimes have to go ahead against the odds, take some risks. You consider and reconsider the evidence using all the intelligence and research you can find to understand trends, revise projections and inform decisions. When you are setting up a private business, you do this knowing that if the project fails you have to explain what happened to the investors.
When you are working in a charity setting, you’re working with donated and public money. When large amounts of money are invested and the charity fails, the public needs to understand why and lessons need to be learnt. When Kids Company went down, questions were asked, poor governance was revealed and it became a salutary lesson for all charity trustees.
The Garden Bridge initiative was a hugely expensive mistake. Now the board minutes have been made public and the accounts filed it would seem timely to revisit this episode so we can understand why it failed and make sure any charity so heavily funded by public money never makes the same mistakes again.
Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator