Governance training that ended in divorce
While watching some trashy television at the weekend (catching up on some Corrie) I was reminded of a training session I once ran which ended with divorce. It was not my own divorce...
The training was for a charity which had been set up to support the families and victims of a large tragedy and to promote the interests of all victims in general. The passion in the organisation was staggering and the trustees and staff were completely committed.
The session started off quite normally, it was a training session on setting up a company limited by guarantee. I hear you all yawn but actually the issue sparked a lot of controversy.
There were some trustees who felt that changing to a company was not giving the right message to people. They were afraid that from the outside it would look like the trustees were making money from the organisation. Some trustees were concerned that they were not ‘doing right’ by their deceased or injured family members.
The Chair and the Vice-Chair were husband and wife and they were in two different camps. The Chair recognised that the organisation was accruing liabilities; it had a few staff, a building etc and thought that setting up a company would help protect both the charity and its trustees. The Vice-Chair was a member of the worried camp.
The discussion started off in a ‘robust’ manner but soon escalated into something a little less fun.
The Chair and Vice-Chair in particular started arguing and swapping personal insults in the meeting. I had to use my best facilitation skills to insert a tea break and talk to the two separately. I asked the Vice-Chair to meet with me away from the training to take some of her individual concerns in a safe space. She was getting a little defensive and felt as though some of the stronger board members were ganging up on her. We arranged a meeting, went into the training and got on with it! She later cancelled the meeting.
A few weeks later I was speaking to the staff member of the charity about an unrelated matter and she told me that after the meeting the couple had formally separated. She said that their fights were a regular occurrence at board meetings and that each had their own supporters on the board who regularly defended their chosen spouse.
Although I know that there must have been deeper issues there, not least the grief that they were both dealing with, I felt more than a little responsible. However, this is primarily a governance blog so let’s focus on the main issue here – conflicts of interest.
It was clear to me in dealing with the charity that they were being smothered by the personal relationships on the board. The vast majority of board members were related or connected in some way. Considering that the charity was delivering to a very distinct group of beneficiaries in a small geographical area, this was not surprising. However, at times the conflicts took over and became personal and the result was a less effective organisation.
It is easy to say “get a conflict of interest policy” and I know that a policy in itself will not manage tensions. However, it is often really useful to have a clear conflict of interest policy that board members know about and sign up to. In the above case, for example, had there been such a policy which had been agreed by the board and signed up to, the board might have started to think about the damaging nature of conflicts and the importance of objectivity. They may have realised that having a Chair and a Vice-Chair who are husband and wife may not be a great idea and that they were not fulfilling their primary role as a trustee – to act in the best interest of their beneficiaries.
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Oonagh Smyth, Senior advisor, shares her advice on governance. Note: Oonagh no longer works for NCVO.