Managing a dominant individual is important for charity boards

This blog comes from Lindsays Charities Group, headed by Alastair Keatinge, one of the few specialists in charity law accredited by the Law Society of Scotland. Alastair holds board positions with a number of charities, giving him insight into how charities operate and the issues they face.

Charities rely upon charismatic and energetic people. People who care about a cause, and have the connections and persuasive powers to make others care about it too.

However, there is often a thin line between charisma and excessive influence. The first is useful. The second can be problematic, as charity regulators have recently warned. The worst-case consequence can be the failure of the charity.

The risks

The problems arising from one person having excessive influence can vary in severity. Some typical problems include:

  • trustees disengaging, failing to contribute or failing to challenge decisions which could lead to unmanaged conflicts of interest, unauthorised personal benefit or failing to perform their legal duties
  • one person shouldering too much responsibility and therefore not having time to horizon-scan or improve the running of the organisation
  • the charity becoming stuck in a rut because the dominant person always greets fresh ideas with ‘Oh no, we do it this way …’
  • the charity failing to consider strategies such as mergers or collaborations because a key person does not want to cede influence.

Not all these scenarios will threaten the existence of the charity, but they could reduce the service delivered to users or impact fundraising or volunteer recruitment. They may also lead to opportunities or risks being missed.

The remedies

The best way to deal with an individual having excessive influence is to stop it happening in the first place. Measures include:

  • ensuring there is a good balance of power between chair and CEO; they need to work well together but be prepared to challenge each other
  • introducing maximum terms for trustees
  • implementing diversity/equality policies for trustees, to reduce the possibility of ‘group-think’ or an overly-compliant board
  • monitoring the attendance and contribution of trustees.

Above all, the boards that are best positioned to prevent excessive influence have two qualities. First, their mix of skills and experience enable them to understand fully the charity’s management, context, risks and opportunities. Secondly, they have adequate training in governance – not merely on their legal responsibilities, but on all aspects of ensuring the charity is sustainable.

If you are concerned about a dominant individual in a charity you’re involved with, initial steps would be to talk to other trustees; and take professional advice on the possible remedies.

With the right advice and a good collective will, it should be possible to resolve the situation.