Charity Disputes – prevent and resolve

The Charity Commission urges charities to tend carefully to internal charity disputes: ‘settle disputes between your charity’s trustees, staff or members to avoid putting your charity’s funds and users at risk.’

The Charity Commission states that internal charity disputes are a problem because:

  • Charity trustees, staff and members can sometimes disagree with each other over decisions about the charity.
  • A serious disagreement within a charity may cause the charity problems and damage its reputation.
  • It is your responsibility as trustees to try to resolve a disagreement or dispute. The Charity Commission can only get involved in exceptional circumstances.

I am an accredited workplace mediator, and an experienced charity chair/trustee:

I am working more and more with charitable boards of trustees and staff/membership groups. I recently successfully undertook a large mediation for a board of trustees experiencing an internal dispute which threatened to overwhelm the crucial work of the charity entirely. We worked through the grievances which had led to the dispute and then developed new operational practices to prevent future relationship breakdown.

Trustees’ feedback included:

  • “Fantastic facilitation. Handled really well. A very productive, well-structured approach to problem solving.”
  • “Clear structure for the day. Safe space and generosity to us all. If Arabella could clone herself and send us a copy! Many thanks – a job very well done.”
  • “Kept things open and calm. Structured well. Many thanks for a safe ‘space’ and thanks for helping us move forward.”

Preventing charity disputes – my top tips for trustees:

  1. Ensure that all trustees know their fundamental roles and responsibilities. All trustees should be familiar with The Essential Trustee.
  2. When interpersonal issues threaten to flare up, turn the focus back to the aims and objectives of the charity – use them as a compass to reset vision and commitment to good collaboration.
  3. Reflect upon and revise your processes and procedures, especially around governance, trustee meetings, decision-making and policies. Are they effective and efficient? Could tweaking your monthly cycle of activities release new energy?
  4. Shift from ‘debate’ to ‘consultation’ when making decisions – this involves seeking the right decision collectively, rather than arguing out opposing positions.
  5. Find ways of building trusting, respectful working relationships beyond the trustee board room. Get together to celebrate achievements; spend days with staff and volunteers doing the work of the charity; acknowledge each other’s skills and contributions in novel and imaginative ways.

The Charities Commission has advice on resolving charity disputes:

  • Check to see if you have a policy for dealing with internal disputes: Your charity’s governing document may include a ‘disputes clause’ with procedures for dealing with a dispute. Even if it doesn’t, you should do everything you can to reach an agreement yourselves. In the absence of a policy on disputes, the commission recommends mediation as the default procedure.
  • Look for some independent external help: Charity trustees and members need to work together to settle any differences they have. If your trustees can’t reach an agreement and follow the directions in your governing document, you may need to look for some independent external help.
  • Call on the services of a mediator: The commission says, ‘Mediation is a more formal way to settle disputes. It is a private and confidential process in which an independent person meets with both sides, helping them to reach a solution that everyone finds acceptable. Mediation can be quick and cost-effective. Through mediation, both sides must agree to any solution, so it is more likely to be a lasting agreement. If your dispute is taken to court, you will be expected to have tried mediation first.’
  • Call on the Charity Commission in certain circumstances only: The commission can only get involved in internal disputes when:
    • there are no trustees (or correctly appointed trustees) in place, and
    • you can show that all attempts to resolve the dispute have failed

How can I help you and your charity?

I first became a chair of trustees at the age of 25 in 1999, when I headed up the board of a large arts and education agency, handling a budget of over a million pounds. As an organisational consultant, I have consulted for many charities since, and recently undertook Stone King LLP’s trustee training (2017/8) to bring my legal and governance knowledge right up to date. I am currently a trustee to a fantastic education foundation in Scotland, and recently stepped down as Chair of Trustees at the brilliant Bath City Farm to be able to work more extensively as a mediator in the charity field.

Contact me for the following support for your charity’s trustees, staff, members or volunteers:

  • Dialogue facilitation
  • Communication & Consultation training
  • Chair’s Mentoring
  • Conflict Coaching (1:1)
  • Mediation (Dispute Resolution)
  • Team-Building Away Days
  • Strategic Planning Days

I have a Charity Rate which you are welcome to ask me about.

Contact me here – in confidence and with no obligation.