Chairman's Corner: Benefit of the doubt?

Chairman's Corner: Benefit of the doubt?
Chair issues

Chairman's Corner: Benefit of the doubt?

Governance | 1 Sep 2009

A troubled chair of a small charity which is heavily reliant on its trustees for funding is faced with the dilemma that one of the members may have been wrongly accused of shoplifting. The Chairman offers some welcomed advice.

Dear Chairman

I chair the board of trustees of a small charity that makes grants in the region of £20,000 each year in support of local initiatives within the county. Whilst we hold a valued and well-respected position within our community we are certainly not a household name beyond the county boundary. We have only three members of staff, two of whom work part-time, and we are heavily reliant on our small board of five trustees, each of whom commits a huge amount of time, energy and enthusiasm to keep the charity afloat.

One of those trustees has presented me with a rather difficult dilemma. Last week she asked to see me privately and was clearly in a very distressed state. It transpires that whilst shopping in a neighbouring town she was detained by the security guard of a well-known store and accused of shoplifting. It seems that an item from the store which had not been paid for was discovered in her bag.

She has no idea how it got there and protests that she is innocent of any wrongdoing. However, it appears that in her distressed state and presented with the option of a police caution or an appearance before the magistrates, she agreed to the caution in order to bring an end to the matter. This lady has been known to me for many years, is a tireless worker for the community and has a previously unblemished record. She is now very concerned about her reputation and her position as a trustee. What do you advise?

Yours sincerely,

T. Lief

Dear Mr Lief,

This is indeed a sensitive issue. On the one hand your sympathies lie with a trusted colleague whom, I suspect, you believe to be the innocent victim of some cruel twist of fate; on the other hand, you have a responsibility to uphold and promote the reputation of the charity of which you are chair. Do you risk losing a trustee who has clearly contributed a good deal to the work of the charity? Or do you risk losing the reputation of the charity and the trust which its supporters and beneficiaries place in it?

Perhaps the first question is – do you have a choice? Under charity law a person who is convicted of an offence involving dishonesty is disqualified from acting as a trustee. It seems in this case that your colleague was not, in fact, convicted but accepted a police caution which, although an admission of guilt, is not the same thing as a conviction. Therefore, technically she may not be disqualified from continuing to act as a trustee (check with the Charity Commission or the charity’s legal adviser). However, even if she is not disqualified by law, in circumstances where the record shows that she has admitted guilt to an offence of dishonesty, notwithstanding her protestations of innocence, should she continue as a trustee?

The event in question took place in a neighbouring town and the matter is not going to court. Perhaps it will never become public knowledge; although I think this unlikely given the closeness of the community of which you speak and the difficulty that your colleague will encounter in masking her distress.

One aspect of the problem is even if you and the other trustees are 100 per cent convinced of her innocence, can you be sure that suspicions will not be harboured amongst some of those with whom the charity works closely, or upon whose goodwill it depends? Can you be sure that others might not think twice before accepting this trustee’s offer to volunteer to count money from this year’s village fete; as she has done in countless years past? You might have absolute faith in her, but are your decisions and judgements already being affected by a desire to protect the charity?

Perhaps the best solution for all concerned is for your colleague to step down as a trustee – she need give no reason for doing so, or perhaps there are other reasons for doing so e.g a desire to focus on another activity which it would now be opportune to initiate – but remain associated with the charity giving her time as a volunteer. The extent to which this is a viable option depends to a great degree on the trust which you and your fellow trustees place in her; and that could be enhanced greatly if she was to share her dilemma with the board as a whole (albeit in confidence). If her standing is as you describe, her fellow trustees are likely to support her initiative; if they are not, better to discover it sooner rather than later.

The Chairman


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