Help for not for profit and charity trustees

CBI: a lesson

A wide range of allegations at the cbi has lessons for all organisations

The CBI – the Confederation of British Industry – has been riven by a wide range of extremely damaging allegations. The Chief Executive has gone, scores of its members have withdrawn their memberships and the government no longer wants to listen to their advice.

This comes after a series of allegations including two alleged rapes, bullying, harassment and the practice of hiring ‘culturally toxic people’. The result is an organisation in crisis and questions of whether it will survive at all, at least in its current form.

The are several points to note which are of interest to small charities. It may not seem that there would be, after all the CBI is a massive organisation with branches around the world, far different from the type of small charity trustee that this site is aimed at. But …

One of the interviews was with a director who said that they (he and his fellow directors) knew nothing of this. It came as a complete shock and there have been other interview with people saying that they discovered what was happening from the press. Ring any bells?

I have spent some time on these posts talking about information, both numerical or statistical and in narrative form. But that will not reveal the sort of thing that was going on at the CBI. It is all too easy for trustees or directors to turn up at board meetings and receive information from the chief executive or other staff telling them that everything is hunky-dory. The CBI, like most if not all organisations these days, will have a host of policies covering just the ground that they have fallen down on. These will be carefully drawn up, pondered over and passed as company policy at a board meeting. Small charities do the same thing. This generates a comfortable feeling that we have a kind of ‘wall’ of policies so if anything goes wrong, we can say ‘we have a policy, why didn’t x follow it?’

I maintain it’s one of the damaging side effects of the policy culture and a rather excessively legalistic view of small charity affairs. We have a phalanx of policies so we are safe. No you ain’t. Look at the CBI and all the child abuse cases: they all had piles of these policies and sub-committees charged with looking after safeguarding, yet terrible things happened and went on happening, seemingly without any of these committees and boards being aware.

What’s to done? As ever, no simple answer but a few ideas to ponder:

  • To repeat, don’t think that having a policy is the answer. It’s the start of the story, not the end. The policy tells you what should be done, not that is has been done.
  • Ask specific questions in committees. Ask if there have been any reported instances? What were they and how were they resolved? Don’t be afraid to drill into the details. If staff become uneasy or defensive, this might indicate problems.
  • Have a rigorous system of leaving interviews and ensure that they are done by a trustee. Even when people leave they may not want to reveal problems, but a sympathetic interviewer may at least pick-up that something was wrong or something untoward happened.
  • Keep a close tab on staff turnover. If there is a lot then why? People leave for all sorts of reasons of course and often quite unconnected with anything happening in the organisation. So high turnover may well have a straight forward explanation, pay for example – it’s not an automatic indication of problems such as bullying etc. But if someone has left to go to a job that doesn’t look as though it is more interesting, better paid or a promotion – why?
  • Meet the staff. Management by wandering around MWA, is a vital tool. We are talking about sensitive matters and only by talking to staff are you likely to get a feel that there is a problem. It may well just be body language and how people are together. If they’ve met you and your colleagues then there is a chance they will say something or at least drop some hints.

As the CBI has found, the results can be devastating and in their case, possibly terminal. Don’t let it happen in your charity or not for profit.

Peter Curbishley

Author of How to be a Successful Trustee

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