Study reveals strains in charity chair-chief executive relationships

If her 16 interviews are typical, there is a crisis, writes Penelope Gibbs

Report author Penelope Gibbs
Report author Penelope Gibbs

Many relationships between charity chief executives and chairs are unsuccessful, and their failure has in several cases caused serious damage to the charities they lead, according to a new study.

A Marriage Made in Heaven? by Penelope Gibbs, a programme director of the Prison Reform Trust and a fellow of the Clore Social Leadership Programme, is based on in-depth interviews with three pairs of chief executives and chairs, five other interviews with chief executives and five other interviews with chairs.

"The number of relationship breakdowns cited by interviewees indicates that the relevant skills and commitment are frequently absent," the report says. "The competence of some chairs was particularly concerning.

"If the testimony of these interviewees is in any way typical, there is a crisis in charity governance."

"Successful, effective CEO/chair relationships are too often the result of luck rather than design," says the report, jointly published by the Clore social leadership programme and the chief executives body Acevo.

"Too many CEOs need or desire more support and scrutiny than they get. And there is insufficient help available to develop the skills and competence of chairs and CEOs."

It cites as an example a situation in which the board mistakenly took the side of a finance director against the chief executive when the former wrongly claimed that the organisation was bankrupt. Board members suspended the chief executive as a result, only to realise their mistake – and the whole board resigned.

It cites several occasions on which a chair attempted to do the job of the chief executive, or was not available to provide any support at all.

The report says poor recruitment processes tend to cause most of the problems, with chairs often found through a "tap on the shoulder" by a friend. It says many chairs take the role as a favour, or for prestige, but do not have the time or the managerial skills to do the job.

The report recommends that chairs be recruited with fixed tenures, through an open process, and should sit on the board before taking on the role of chair.

It says all charities should consider appointing deputy chairs, more chairs should be paid and more training, mentoring and appraisals should be available to chairs and chief executives.

Gibbs said it was not possible to conclude from her limited number of qualitative interviews that there was a general crisis in chair-chief executive relationships. "The indications are that quite a high number are quite strained," she said."As I recommend, someone needs to do some quantitiative research on this."

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