Charities and their Trustees

It may immediately occur to you that this is an unusual topic for posting on a ‘blog’ to do mainly with mental health.   However, with rising numbers of employees in both charitable and non charitable organisations suffering with mental health issues, many of which relate to stress and bullying in the workplace, then it does seem to be appropriate.

On 5/9/08 this blog provided information about the YouGov poll for the TUC into Bullying in the Workplace, and the link to the full report.  Then on 8/9/08 information was provided on ‘What is happening in the Voluntary Sector’ – and the link to the report provided by Charity Pulse/Birdsong.  Both these posts are stored under the heading Bullying elsewhere on this blog.

Charity Trustees have many responsibilities, details of which are provided by the Charity Commission on their website.   In carrying out these responsibilities, and particularly those of duty of care to the organisation and its’ employees, there is a logical need for the trustees to make themselves aware of what is taking place in the charity in their name.   They have a collective responsibility for knowing what is going on, and for the decisions taken.   It is a naive Trustee who relies entirely on third party information when reaching decisions.   And what of integrity?   Having been a Trustee and for some time the administrator of two nationally registered charities over some 25 years I have no doubt that it is essential that all Trustees take the time to become aware of issues affecting their employees (yes, their employees) as well as the organisation.   This can only be done by physically visiting the work sites of the organisation and becoming familiar with the variety of services being offered by the employees.   Without such interest and personally  collected knowledge how can decisions which affect the employees and the development or otherwise of the charity be reached with confidence and impartiality?   

Sadly, it is when trustees are not able to find the time to talk with employees and to observe the breadth of their duties that mistakes occur and morale drops.   Stress rises, and so does the incidence of bullying and the smoke screening of unacceptable practices.   In such situations mental health issues will occur and lasting personal damage become established.  Recently there was discussion about an employee of a charity who was suspended for several months while being investigated and then suddenly dismissed.  It is not being suggested that this was in any way illegal – the evidence for the detail of the investigation is not available – but what could be the justification for treating a long term employee in this insensitiive and very stressfull manner?   Did the trustees of the organisation think that was an appropriate and humane way to treat one of their employees and did they approve of the process throughout its duration?  Or were they guided by third party information?   Did they exercise their duty of care to the employee as well as the organisation?   It is hard to see how that could have been the case.   In another recent situation a charity used its age related policy to end the employment of a medium term employee.  That was a decision for the Trustees, and altho that decision was within their power, what also happened was that the most recent appeal of the employee against this decision has not been responded to for approximately three weeks.   This has increased stress for the employee and colleagues, and confusion, depression and loss of motivation have resulted.  And where is the Trustee’s duty of care in this case? 

It is against this sort of background that the reports of YouGov and Charity Pulse have to be considered.  The work of Trustees is demanding, unpaid and responsible and every charitable organisation owes it’s trustees gratitude.  However, if Trustees cannot find the time to carry out their responsibilities with full knowledge of the issues, then it is better that they retire from the role.


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