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Sole trustee arrangements: a recipe for trouble

Public bodies that are sole trustees of charities have cropped up many times in Third Sector and on Thirdsector.co.uk in the past few months. Most recently, the Charity Commission and Department of Health have continued a year-long argument over NHS charities controlled by the hospitals and primary care trusts they are attached to.

The answer, in this case, is far from clear, but it highlights a question of good governance. Can a charity really be independent of an organisation that can appoint and dismiss its trustees, often at will? Can two bodies maintain separate identities despite having the same people in charge of both?

The issue has caused problems across the country over the last year, At the Livesey Museum in Southwark, the local council forgot altogether that it was a trustee, when it closed down the museum, in a move that paved the way for it to sell the asset to fill its own coffers. In Dartford, the council did sell land belonging to a charitable trust, with the result that land left in perpetuity for local people will now end up under a Tesco car park. Now the council has been told by the charity tribunal to appoint independent trustees to the charity’s board.

And at Alexander Palace and Highbury Hall, the accusations of mismanagement go back a quarter of a century.

Even at charities that are better run than this, though, it’s surely very difficult to be a sole trustee without laying yourself open to conflicts of interest. Councillors are often likely to be excellent trustees – they’re hard-working, skilled administrators with excellent local contacts – but others will always suspect them of using the charity’s assets to boost their first master, the public body they represent.

It is far better to avoid the problem altogether. Appoint an equal number of corporate trustee representatives and independents to the board, and employ an independent manager using charitable funds. The charity is likely to be much better run.

Full marks for Pell & Bales

There was a bit of lull in the rugby between England and Argentina – in fact, the whole thing was a bit of a lull – so I didn’t object too much to taking a call from a charity on a Saturday afternoon. And when the young woman said she was calling from “P&B on behalf of Save the Children”, the antennae twitched a bit: this must be none other than Pell & Bales, who have been on the naughty step a bit recently. Allegations of inappropriate remarks to cancer sufferers, ‘admin’ calls to people who don’t want to be called – you’ve probably read about it in the press. So I listened intently.

About a year ago I had a call from Save the Children that was pretty lame. The agent stumbled through a script in a monotone, sounding completely detached and uninspired. But this person was completely different: she talked in an animated, well-informed way about the new methods of feeding starving children in the east African drought. She answered questions well, paced it right, wasn’t too pushy about money. She even asked me if I was sure I could manage the direct debit increase I had agree to. It was an impeccable performance.

At the end I checked – did you say you were from Pell & Bales? “Yes,” she said. “We’re a fundraising agency in Kingston.” “Fantastic,” I said.

A bit later, when the warm glow had faded, the cynical reflex kicked in: that line about being sure you can afford it – was that that the latest way of subliminally suggesting to a man that his wallet’s not big enough, prompting him to demonstrate its hugeness to the nice female caller by offering yet more? Hmm. Maybe it’s possible to be too suspicious.

Nude charity calendars: had enough yet?

Another week, another nude charity calendar. Bright young internet entrepreneurs are the latest to strike
coy poses for the London Nude
Tech 2010
to raise cash for education charity Take Heart India.

Will anyone buy it?

Yes, according to the charity’s spokesman Lucian Tarnowski: the calendar is fully expected to raise its
target of £40,000, with production costs covered by sponsors and volunteers. He’s likely to be proved right, given that it’s a sleek,
professional product on sale exclusively through geeks’ favourite online
emporium Firebox.com.

But the entrepreneurs jostle for position with army
wives
; a
Welsh male voice choir
; barmaids
from Gravesend
; the list goes on. Charity nude calendars are ubiquitous.

As everybody has heard once too often, they take their
cue from 1999’s Calendar Girls
of the Yorkshire WI, and you can see why they do it. Guaranteed coverage for
the ‘volunteers’, and usually the cause gets a quick mention. London Nude Tech made
the Telegraph website’s front page.

But how valuable is such press coverage to charities? The vast
majority are amateur affairs, of varying quality and made
without the charity’s knowledge or involvement.

And things can go wrong. According to this
report
, Scottish Women’s Aid
found itself fielding criticism when it turned down £600 offered by a group of
women – some of whom had experienced domestic violence – who had posed for a
calendar. There was a row: the women were upset when the charity said
the cash would compromise its feminist principles.

“We’re not commenting on that any more,” says a
brisk-sounding spokeswoman. “It took up
enough of our time.”

Regardless of whether you think Scottish Women’s Aid was right or wrong, you can see what she means. Nude charity calendars might have been amusing and original ten years ago. They may even be well-meaning.

But in 2009 aren’t the knowing winks,
strategically positioned props and semi-professional photography becoming lazy and tired?