Let the charity tribunal deal with disgruntled volunteers

Hardly a week seems to go by at Third Sector  without us being contacted by some disgruntled volunteer or trustee. The story always runs along similar lines: the volunteers feel they have been badly treated by their charities but have been unable to find any redress other than going to the media. Invariably they have complained to the Charity Commission only to be told that the regulator does not involve itself in internal disputes.

Just this year I have reported on four such cases, involving the National Coastwatch Institute, Uxbridge United Welfare Trusts, the Pituitary Foundation and Melton Mowbray Town Estate. Many of the volunteers involved have been deeply affected by the way they feel their goodwill and passion for the charity’s cause has been thrown back in their face.

There have been calls for a volunteers’ ombudsman for several years but nothing has come of it. Volunteering England launched an inquiry into volunteers’ lack of rights last November, but it has been given a six-month extension because the issue is bigger than the organisation had initially realised.

The disgruntled volunteers who contact Third Sector are all united in the belief that volunteers need something akin to employment rights to protect them from being bullied or summarily dismissed. And with all the emphasis political parties are currently putting on volunteering as a means of strengthening society, surely safeguards must be established to prevent the volunteering experience from embittering people.

Clearly this would require legislation, but it strikes me that we have a charity tribunal sitting around with nothing much to do and an endless queue of volunteers all crying out for a taste of justice. Surely whichever party wins the election ought to do the decent thing and put the two together?

12 Responses to “Let the charity tribunal deal with disgruntled volunteers”

  1. pauline Bradbury

    Hi Paul,thankyou for this article you have put together the feelings and shortfalls of volunteers and their rights. We are all waiting to see which party is going to take this up.

    Keep up your very good work

  2. Sue Pritchard

    Hi Paul – I agree entirely with what you are suggesting.  Not only would a change in the law protect the volunteer, but it would also serve to protect the interests of the charity itself.  There are far too many trustees who think they have some God given right to use money belonging to the charity to support their bullying antics. These are trustees who blatantly ignore the fact that they are using money that should be used for charitable purposes.    

    I suspect that the cases you quote, Paul, are just the tip of the iceberg.  There are many, many cases just as bad that never come to light.  Most volunteers who find themselves in the situation you describe are soon dismayed when they find out about the lengthy process needed to take their concerns further. The volunteer will soon find out that there is very little they can do to stop others abusing them when they are working voluntarily.   Like it or not, they are on their own.  

    The Charity Commission will have told them they cannot involve themselves in disputes amongst trustees.  Citizens Advice will have told them the same.  They may have tried to seek help under the Protection of Harassment Act but will have soon found out that the lawyers are really only interested in cases where there is money in it for them, i.e. loss of earnings, and as a volunteer doesn’t earn, then the likelihood of them getting redress under that law is pretty remote.

    By that stage the volunteer will have involved themselves in a mountain of paperwork, endless phone calls and emails, letters of protest and hours or internet research. It is hardly surprising then that most will find it too stressful to continue and will cut their losses and go.  Those who dig their heels in and stay do so at their peril.  They will then face the wrath of the bullies who will crank up their abuse to new heights.  They will do anything to get rid of the volunteer who has found something wrong with the way they operate. They will be using all the bullying tactics they can think of, and more – isolation, ridicule, character assassination, threats, abusive comments etc. etc.  

    It doesn’t matter how unlawful and unkind it is, they will do it anyway.  They will make sure that any meeting the volunteer does attend will be as horrendous as they can possibly make it. They will actively encourage claims to be made ‘against’ the volunteer and then hold kangaroo courts so that they can declare the trustee the problem.  They will refuse to provide the evidence to back up their claims. They will refuse to answer the volunteer’s emails and letters saying ‘they don’t have to if they don’t want to’.

    With the charity’s money behind them, they will set about engaging solicitors to agree with what they are doing.  They will make statements at meetings saying things like ‘this charity would be better served if this trustee were to resign’.

     They will monopolise meetings with so called complaints against the trustee and then issue statements siding with the complainant.  They will give the complainant a pay rise in reward for being on their side. They will refuse the volunteer access to data they are entitled to and they will circulate their data to all and sundry, taking no notice of data protection legislation.  If this person was an employee rather than a volunteer they would have a prescribed method of redress.  As a volunteer they have nothing.  

    Those who have had the unfortunate experience of finding themselves in the situation I describe will immediately recognise what it is I am talking about.

    These are volunteers who are up against bullies who are a law to themselves and who refuse to take notice of anyone – solicitors, the Charity Commission, the Information Commissioner’s Office, barristers; they will ignore all of them for as long as they possibly can. Unfortunately, enlisting the help of the ‘powers that be’ is a long and complicated process and not recommended for the faint-hearted.  

    It takes rejection after rejection before eventually someone might just sit up and take notice but this is in no way guaranteed.  A change in the law to protect the volunteer is long overdue and I give it my wholehearted support.

  3. Pat Cumbers

    In October 2009,after two years, I ceased being a trustee of the above charity, the Melton Mowbray Town Estate, where all trustees are elected by local people. I am still in (fruitless) correspondence with the Charity Commission relating to problems within the charity and the way the two female trustees were treated by the majority of the board. The charity  ignored specific Commission advice and refused to allow me to stand for election and then lied to the Commission about it. The BBC tried to film the AGM in October 2009 but were locked out even though other non-members were allowed in – the BBC reporter was unable to witness the charity reverting to being a Board of 14 male trustees. They had managed to drive off both female trustees. The BBC broadcast a documentary film hilighting some of the problems within the charity – the chairman refused to answer questions but then responded to the BBC on the charity’s website.

    The trustees had proposed a new Scheme of Arrangement which was emphatically rejected by the Commission’s Decision Review Panel in December 2009 for several reasons including the gender imbalance, lack of openness, lack of accountability etc and the Panel stated that the ‘complaints and allegations about the charity and its trustees must be resolved to the Commission’s satisfaction before a Scheme can be made’.

    Despite all that, other officers in the Commission appear to believe that the way we were treated was not unacceptable or relevant. Just how much are trustees expected to tolerate? Is there any treatment meted out by trustees to fellow trustees which the Commission would deem to be unacceptable ? It appears not!

    Just how bad does the behaviour of trustees have to be before they are considered unfit to be trustees ?  I wish I knew. Volunteers, including trustees, must have some protection, similar to employees and Paul’s suggestion to involve the Charity tribunal is an excellent one. That would help protect the charities too. Thank goodness for Paul and his colleagues on Third Sector for giving a voice to people who need to be heard.                

  4. Jackie Batstone

    All well and good – but the Tribunal can only
    Hear appeals against the decisions of the Charity Commission (the Commission)
    Hear applications for review of decisions of the Charity Commission
    Consider references from the Attorney General or the Charity Commission on points of law

    So is the first port of call actually the Charity Commission rather than the tribunal?

    This seems unlikely to help as the Commission doesn’t seem to see volunteers as a priority!

  5. mary clark

    Since there seems to be no available help in this country , Do you think it might be possible to go to Europe ?
    The European Ombudsman investigates complaints about maladministration in the institutions and bodies of the European Union.

    If you are a citizen of a Member State of the Union or reside in a Member State, you can make a complaint to the European Ombudsman. Businesses, associations or other bodies with a registered office in the Union may also complain to the Ombudsman.

  6. william dixon smith

    “Disgruntled” is not the word I would choose to described my feelings about being sacked as a volunteer. I am outraged. I sacrificed three years of my life to the preserving and cataloguing documents of national importance for a local authority; a specialised professional job.

    I was sacked for purely personal reasons: telling the archivist her methods were contrary to best practice. As a result my work was curtailed. There is no one willing or able to continue my work.
    These documents, neglected and abused for years, are again left to the vagaries of professionals whose self-esteem is more important to them than the work they are paid to do.

    It is the sheer arbitrariness of the treatment to which volunteers are subjected that is objectionable.
    The term “Volunteer’s Rights” might suggest that campaigners demand special treatment, incomprehensible to those whose treatment has always been just. Doubtless, in most cases volunteers are appreciated and treated accordingly. Consequently, their vulnerability is not realised.
    Employees rights are not there to protect them from the majority of good employers, but from the vicious minority of bad employers.

    The old cosy relationship between volunteer and recruiter is vanishing. Volunteering is now big business, as the hundreds of recruiting advertisements demonstrate. It needs regulation.

    Legislation is vital, but much could be done immediately by the recruiting agencies and responsible recruiting organisations to alleviate matters. There is no reason why every recruiting organisation should not have a grievance policy. Prospective volunteers should be warned of the danger of signing inequitable “Volunteer Agreements”. That would be a start.

  7. A Smith

    How on earth would that work? CEO’s are employees (albeit very senior ones), Trustees are the employer. There is a very neccesary distinction in both charity and employment law.

    On another note I’m more than familiar with the scenario of the CEO who does nothing to address an impending crisis and then leaves – with handsome reward – just before everything goes belly up. Can’t see a soution though, except for ensuing that your board are a little more clued up and less naive.

  8. A Smith

    Eh? This wasn’t ‘edited by a moderator’ (previous), it’s precisely as I typed it originally!

  9. Third Sector

    Hi. I’m the online editor and edited the post just to correct a spelling error – otherwise the content was left unchanged.

  10. James Renton


    I share most of your sentiments and concerns.

    Building Capacity – Big are taking their lead from Government policy so no chance of a BASIS 3 for no other reason than they are not going to go against government policy (see also Social Investment below). Although it must be said that it was also to keep in-line with the previous government’s policy that their was a BASIS 1 or 2 in the first place?

    Programme Approach – I am not sure that LAs are that involved? If they are using a competition to decide a local lead is that not fairer than just appointing your best mate? Also if you have a multi-million pound project mimicking a prime model then you need a robust assessment of someone’s financial viability not just take their word for it? Dare I suggest it you would be better off with LAs as the financial responsible authority as they can (in theory) handle the transactional, procurement and financial management costs much easier. Then specify to the LAs how they engage with the local VCS led partnership, decision-making etc (give them a model to follow but one which gives power to community groups). If the VCS are in the financial lead then having more medium sized projects makes more sense. This issue is partly about Big management costs as you point out but I think also stems from the desire to have large projects with significant impact in their target areas.

    Social Investment – This is the prerogative of the Big Society Bank – they have been built to the social investment market – everyone else should stay out. Big are trying to gain capital with the government by supporting social investment hence their interest but they are barking up the wrong tree.

    Big Society Network and Your Square Mile – A bit of investigative journalism would turn this into a major embarrassment for all parties – classic example of giving public money to an organisation not really set up to run projects requiring outside accountability and parameters. Instead a bunch of posh boys/girls trying to create projects to justify why the plebs do not need public spending – except when public funds are spent on their projects ofcourse – so the rest of us have to rely on neighbourliness, food-parcels and good old commonsense.

    European Funding – This could turn into a farrago of the highest order – co-financing only works if the organisation managing the fund uses its own cash and matches it with the EU cash (so Big should be the managing authority adding EU cash to its own resources). Also where it has been done in the case of ESF (I am not suggesting this as a role model) – the EU cash has been subjugated to national funding steams not the other way around, it has also inexorably led to a more impersonal, tender based approach and larger contracts through which the smaller VCS have been pushed out. It does not have to be this way but has happened.

  11. Vic Borrill

    I think that speculating what the Big Lottery might do next is an occupational hazard but Richard’s piece got me thinking.

    The Brighton & Hove Food Partnership has for the last four years been the lead partner on a Local Food Funded project Harvest Brighton & Hove.

    For us delivering work funded by a programme approach (where a single body holds responsibility for distribution of funding and administration of the programme) has offered some clear benefits.

    Local Food is managed by the RSWT and having grant officers who are specialists on the themed programme means they have been able to do so much more than administer the money, monitor the outputs and measure the outcomes.

    We have been able to easily find out when other places are doing similar work, have access to community food resources (saving masses of time by not reinventing the tractor wheel) and have a forum (foodecommunity) to share what we have learnt.

    We have also had a grant manager who understands what the whole Local Food programme was setting out to achieve as well as having time to dedicate to our individual project. This has helped to guide some of our decisions. And although not yet published the evaluation that Local Food are doing on the way the programme has been delivered and what it has achieved overall shows their commitment to reflecting and learning themselves.

    Not wanting to make these claims without checking with others I asked the opinions of some colleagues from other Local Food funded Beacon projects (who I know well enough to ask because I’ve met them at local food events).

    Commonwork in Kent agreed that the opportunities for face-to-face sharing and learning enabled by Local Food/RSWT has been valuable both for the immediate work and the sustainability of the work going ahead.

    Incredible Edible Todmorden added that it was also the Beacon approach that has been of great benefit . “The active involvement and detailed knowledge of the other projects shown by RSWT/Local Food has been of huge value to us and their proactive promotion of networking between us all has provided great learning opportunities”

    I would agree with Learning through Landscapes that crucial to the success of a programme approach is the selection process for Award partners (i.e. RSWT, Mind, Groundwork) which needs to ensure the programme is managed by competent leaders in the sector. This shouldn’t be seen as the Big handing over the reigns to ‘prime contractors’. In the case of Local Food and RSWT for example, it certainly appears from a grant recipient’s point of view that the programme is collaborative.

    So while I don’t know about the fulfilling lives a better start programme and locally competing to be a lead partner sounds far from ideal there is much to be gained from a programme approach along the line of Local Food.

    Finally a thought on overheads. ‘Efficiency’ should not be at the expense of ensuring that those making the grant decisions have the skills, knowledge and time to make informed decisions. Otherwise we risk that organisations who are small, new, don’t have fundraising teams or grant application experience losing out – not because their work wasn’t suitable for lottery funding but because they didn’t get the right support at application stage.

    Good luck indeed to whoever is in charge at the Lottery next and if he or she want to find out more about the comprehensive work of the Local Food Programme I suggest a visit to one of the 500 projects funded by local food – I’m sure they will get the tea and cake out.


  12. Martin Preston

    Surprise, surprise….The National Audit Office has identified concerns about the grants awarded to the Big Society Network and the Society Network Foundation (its charitable arm) by the Cabinet Office and the Big Lottery Fund!


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