Help for not for profit and charity trustees

The deadly triangle: part II

In this post I suggest some possible ways to avoid this problem

In the last post I discussed what I call the ‘deadly triangle’ which can exist between the chair, the CEO and the board of trustees. I discussed some of the reasons for it and promised to take it further in another post. The problem can be an acute one: it can lead to a resignation, long periods of unhappiness and threats to the charity or not for profit itself if it continues too long.

How can it be tackled?  Let’s start with the negative: if it is a personality clash then a solution may simply not exist.  Each has their standpoint and is unlikely to shift.  A mediator of some kind – either from the board or from outside – may be able to help but both parties have to want to get a solution.  If positions are entrenched then even this may not work. 

On the positive side, there are things which can help and the first is to be clear about the charity’s mission and purpose.  This needs to be regularly reviewed – every three years at least – and the essential question asked: are we still fulfilling a need?  There are other questions and there is quite a lot of advice around about this process (and in my book!).  From this flows the strategy and work plan.  The existence of these documents will go a long way to smoothing out difficulties. They will act as a kind of fulcrum to any potential disagreements.  The final draft and work plan will have been agreed by the board and this helps give it status.

They will not be fool proof however for two reasons.  However well drafted, there will always be matters of interpretation, the pace of work, attitudes to risk or difficult choices to be made.  Another factor is change during the life of the strategy – the pandemic being an obvious and dramatic recent example. 


There is advice on role descriptions and I suppose they do help.  But those I have seen do not seem to get beyond the legal duties and do not tackle the problem I am addressing here.  The CEO will have a job description as part of their appointment.  I think something more is needed and that is a kind of ‘working protocol’ agreed between the two.  What might this look like?

  • Right from the start – ideally soon after one or the other is appointed or elected – to sit down and agree respective spheres of influence.  This might take the form of a list of topics: recruitment, finance issues, information issues, what goes to board and so on.  It cannot be absolute since sometimes quite small decisions can have great moment, but it is a start.
  • Agree a meeting framework: twice a month say with an agreed brief agenda.  In other words, a specific day every fortnight to meet. The agenda will be based on the work programme.
  • It helps to have a social element now and again even if it is only a lunchtime pint.  It helps to form a relationship and enable more general discussion to take place.  It can also help to generate trust since in the last post I suggested this was a common problem. 

In my book I say that the perfect chief executive has yet to be created.  The range of duties and responsibilities – even in quite a small charity – can be formidable: just look at the job description and the range of things laid out therein.  It follows that even a talented and capable CEO will have gaps in their knowledge or experience.  If the weight of expectation is high and demands by the board too great, this can lead to the CEO feeling vulnerable or even threatened. 

A good chair will be alert to this and it is the sort of thing that a chat in the pub might reveal.  The board should be ready to help and support the CEO.  It might be a course, training of some kind, mentoring or even help from a board member who has relevant knowledge or experience.  It can for example, be something as simple as the use of time.  Some leaders find letting go of the detail and delegation quite difficult.  This can lead to stress, disillusioned staff and poor performance. 

Never forget that being a boss or leader is a lonely place.  Some find this difficult to handle.  The leap from number two to the top job is a massive one.  The chair should be sensitive to this.

At the end of the day it comes down to relationships.  Although having clear objectives and the other practical things I have suggested can help, it does eventually mean the chair in particular seeing their role as principally one of support combined with a degree of challenge.  If there is a feeling of both individuals engaged on a mutual endeavour then this does go a long way. 

Having said all that, there can come a time when, despite support, training, mentoring and other measures, the CEO is not up to the job.  It happens.  It can be because the charity is growing and new skills are needed.  It might all along have been a bad appointment.  The CEO may simply be resistant to change or offers of help.  It will then be the role of the chair to discuss this with the board. 

Isolation of the Chair

Which brings me to the final point.  If there are problems looming then informing, and even involving, the board is important for the chair.  What can happen is that the board receives reports from staff and the CEO which can give a one-sided view.  There is unlikely to be any mention of the divergence of views.  The chair can start to feel isolated since the board is being told things are going well whereas he or she has misgivings.  The chair may need time with fellow trustees without the CEO present.  It is best done on a routine basis.  Suddenly to arrange such a meeting can cause more problems than it solves since the CEO may smell a rat and feel they are being ganged up on.

All in all, the ‘deadly triangle’ is a potential minefield.  I hope this may be of some help but I do admit that perfect solutions are not possible only methods to reduce their incidence.  

Peter Curbishley is the author of How to be a Successful Trustee ISBN 978-1-913012-63-2 and 978-1-913012-61-8 Pbk

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