Government and the Voluntary Sector, Governance, Leadership

Publicly condemning your own charity is a clear breach of trustee principles

I was taken aback by the response from one of the RSPB’s trustees to its social media debacle.

My brother is famous in our family for being completely unable to keep a secret.

One year he rang us saying that he and my other brother had bought us all surprise presents and we were not to try to guess what they were; but that none of us should buy a fleece before Christmas. We still laugh about it now.

But he knows what is important to keep private, so he sprang to mind when I was reading about the RSPB tweet debacle.

In summary, the RSPB recently felt it had to apologise for a tweet calling three ministers liars, after they decided to scrap current restrictions on housebuilders protecting water quality.

The part of the debacle I refer to here is not the original tweet, but the behaviour of one of RSPB’s trustees, Ben Caldecott, who tweeted his public condemnation of the social media post.

I must admit to being a bit taken aback by this.

Caldecott may have meant well but he seems to have not understood the very clear principle that trustees are expected to protect the reputation of the charity they serve.

While reputation is a slippery concept, public condemnation of your own charity is a clear breach of this very important rule if this is not part of the agreed response of the whole board.

It is right for any trustee to raise a concern with the chair and fellow trustees.

It is not right to go public without their agreement.

Boards are deemed by law to be a collective whole. Anything any individual trustee does can be considered to be the action of the whole board, so no individual trustee has the right to speak about the charity without the board’s agreement.

And once the board has agreed on a line, it is the duty of every trustee to follow that line – if you can’t then you need to step down.

If you think the board or executive is engaged in some kind of wrongdoing or misstep and you can’t persuade them to change, then your duty is to report them to the Charity Commission – not slag them off in public.

Any trustee who breached this duty of care to our charity at DSC would be very quickly called to account by our chair and fellow trustees.

In fairness, I think many trustees are completely unaware of their collective responsibility in law.

This is one of the reasons why it is so important for charities to provide proper training, and teach trustees that the collective decision of the board is the one you have to publicly support – whatever you might feel or say privately.

And if a trustee can’t back their board then they need to stand down.

None of us can function with a rogue trustee who thinks they are more important than the collective.

Undermining in public the work of your charity is simply not on, no matter how annoyed you might be or how much you might argue fiercely in the privacy of a board meeting.

My brother might leak secret presents – but you can guarantee that he would never betray the family in public.

Responsibility means not telling people you have bought them a fleece unless you’ve all agreed to it!

This article was originally published on the Third Sector website, take a look here.