At Work: Law and Governance - Expert view - How to deal with dissident trustees

Judith Rich, the chair of Charity Appointments and the Diabetes Foundation, and a trustee of Relate and Reach

Dissent among board members can undermine a charity's reputation and ability to work.

When someone puts themselves forward to become a trustee, it is normal to assume they are prepared to work collectively with other board members to achieve the charity's aims and objects.

Nevertheless, as with any corporate appointment, outside pressures during the course of a trustee's term of office can sometimes lead to individuals taking a stand on certain issues. The chair of the trustees then has to lead a process to handle this and ensure that the final outcome is a united front from the board. This is especially important where widely differing views are held; they should be dealt with at the earliest opportunity so that differences are not allowed to fester.

Behind closed doors

It can sometimes help to hold an in camera session - a meeting at which no staff member is present - before the board meeting. This can lead to a much more open discussion among board members, and those with differing views might come to accept that their stance is unacceptable.To make this easier, the chair could canvass opinion before presenting the different opinions in the in camera session. However, all trustees should then be allowed to express their viewpoints in a fair and balanced way.

In the best-case scenario, this will lead to a unanimous outcome. If agreement really can't be reached, however, the opposing viewpoints should be carefully recorded and a statement agreed for dissemination to interested parties.

If the latter situation occurs, it is essential for the chair to meet the dissenting board member or members as soon as possible in order to maintain the corporate identity of the board and ensure that a long-term split won't occur.

Further insight

It would also be a good idea for the board to explore exactly why the people concerned hold such entrenched views and to discuss if it would be appropriate for them to gain further insight into the issue. It might be fitting for them to have a discussion with a relevant member of staff, for example, or to get exposure to similar activities within other organisations.

What can't be allowed to happen is for differences to go beyond reasonable intellectual questioning. The chair may in the end have to discuss with those involved whether or not they want to continue serving on the board.

If this is the course you find yourself taking, the trustees in question should be made to feel worthwhile and reminded that they make a valued contribution, but board activity must never be side-tracked or diminished by a minority or individual members.

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