Open Forum – 19 October

As Coram Family loses another director, it is time to introduce a semblance of democracy into charities, writes Terry Philpot

The frequency with which Coram Family loses its directors – the third in 10 years has quit after rumours of problems with the trustees – prompts questions about the way in which the trustees of charities get their jobs. The D word – democracy – is as absent from the Charity Bill as it was from the Charity Act 1601; it is the value that dare not speak its name when other values are shouted from the roof tops of Whitehall.

Trustees are accountable only in the strictest legal sense. In the decisions they take and policies they make, they are accountable, in effect, only to each other which creates a usually a hermetic environment.

While spending billions, only 3 per cent of voluntary bodies recruit trustees by advertising and the same percentage do so by headhunting; the rest are recruited by personal recommendation – or whom you might know on the board. Some even have no fixed terms of office. In too many cases, wittingly or otherwise, this creates a self-perpetuating oligarchy.

One way of recruitment might not fit all, comparing, say, Barnardo’s (which advertises for trustees) and small, local bodies. But other methods could include election by members, although the National Trust’s recent dismal changes to its electoral methods offer no example.

Such things matter more now than ever with the voluntary sector choosing to accept the Queen’s shilling on service provision. But the other side of that coin is not only in the way that agencies are themselves accountable but how accountable are those charged with their governance. Current changes are said to be about encouraging civil society, efficiency and innovation. Leaving aside whether this is possible, if voluntary agencies are transformed into arms of the state, such ambitions are to be achieved by board places still being filled in haphazard and undemocratic ways so antiquated that Dr Thomas Barnardo himself would recognise them.

Terry Philpot is a charity trustee of editor of Sweet Charity: The Role and Workings of Voluntary Organisations (Routledge)

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