I recently heard of an interesting situation with a Chair of a Board of Trustees not understanding the concept of collective responsibility. Surely, I asked myself, everyone who serves as a Trustee knows this basic principle – I therefore set out to conduct some simple research by asking colleagues and was surprised to find how many thought collective responsibility was an optional element of decision making!
The situation I encountered is an interesting example of this. It arose when the Chair apparently wished to take a certain course of action but the Board executive committee wished a different course. Having failed to reach consensus it was agreed the two opposing views would be presented to the full board for a decision. The Chair believed if his course was not followed there would be many serious repercussions – a form of ‘project fear’ began! Shortly before the board meeting the Chair, when circulating the agenda and the two opposing papers, declared that the minutes of the meeting would list all the Trustees and how they voted on the issue. Some Trustees viewed this as intimidation. When challenged during the meeting to justify the decision to record names the Chair stated it was an opportunity for at a later stage (assuming he lost the vote and all his fears came true of his perceived problems) those who lost the vote (himself included) to respond to external criticism by saying it was not their fault because they voted against it.
The Chair was challenged by some Trustees over collective responsibility – he indicated he understood the principle, but claimed it did not apply if one states in the minutes you did not support the relevant decision. Extraordinary.
The power of the concept of collective responsibility should not be, in my view, under estimated. It helps brings a board together, it encourages open and free debate, it ensures decisions made (especially the very difficult ones) are robust and can stand up to scrutiny.
For those of you unfamiliar with the guidelines for collective decisions I have set out the basic principles below:
- It is a legal requirement that all Trustees have a duty to make decisions ‘collectively’ (jointly). It does not usually mean that the Trustees must all agree, or that a decision can only be made if every Trustee takes part.
- Once a decision has been made, all Trustees must support, abide by, and carry out that decision.
- An absent Trustee will still share responsibility for the decision that the other Trustees made.
- If a Trustee strongly disagrees with a decision, they can ask for their disagreement to be recorded in the minutes. Even if a Trustee asks for their disagreement with a decision to be recorded, they will still, under the principle of collective responsibility, be held jointly responsible.
- A Trustee might feel so strongly that a decision is not in the interests of the charity that they have no choice but to resign.
Sources: Charity Commission For England and Wales: Guidance ‘It’s your decision: charity trustees and decision making (CC27)