Many or few trustees?

Poster: 26/5/06

I have two concerns. One is how we can ensure that a small body of trustees can be made accountable to MM. I was asked by the MM Trusteeship Task Group to prepare proposals on this. It is difficult to write a governing document that ensures this because by definition and by law the trustees are the ones with the power and the authority.

It is now completed and is at this link.

The other concern, which I address here, is the question of whether the trustees must be a small body. MfS has been the trustees for many years and it consists of well over 100 members. Until January Quaker Stewardship Committee were still considering a model in which Meeting for Sufferings remained the trustees of Britain Yearly Meeting.

Instead of MM selecting a small body of trustees my contention is that MM should be its own trustees. As Chris Willmore has admitted, until Richard Drake's mailing she had not fully thought it through. I believe most Friends have not. It has not been properly discussed. I believe that most Friends dislike conflict and are keen to accept what has been proposed by QSC on the basis that they are reliable and will have looked into all possibilities. I do not doubt their sincerity or thoroughness but I think I know ‘where they are coming from’ i.e. what presumptions they accepted and I know they have not thoroughly considered this because their Clerk told me so and explained why.

Where are they coming from? For many years the Society has been grappling not with the question of trustees and the Charity Commission but with that of a better management structure. RECAST was only the last of a succession of committees looking into this. It proposed inter alia that MMs should set up committees to handle admin matters so that the MM in session could devote more time to spiritual and inspirational matters. While this debate went on MfS set up a committee called MfS Committee despite many protests that it was an executive committee and would usurp the authority of MfS. I was a protester not because I thought an executive committee was a bad thing but because of the lack of consultation about it. I welcomed the RECAST proposals about which there was very thorough consultation and adjustment of their proposals in the light of that consultation. It proposed what I would call executive committees at both national and MM levels.

This is relevant because Quaker Stewardship Committee (QSC) have spent many hours honing their proposals for the national level and their proposals for the MM level are little more than an adaptation of their national model. In addition to closely following and partaking in the discussions over the past few years I have watched the drafts as they were produced over the past few months. But not all improvements made to the national level proposals have been copied over into the MM proposal.

My proposals for MM accountability will be that we include the same sort of safeguards that are in the national proposal.

The reason QSC did not look into a large trustees body model was that their brief precluded it. How did that restriction come about?

The Agenda Committee set the agenda for last year's YM with two separate discussions. One on RECAST i.e. basically about management structures and then another session on trusteeship. The disastrous decision was made at the last minute to conflate these two discussions. The resulting discussion was thoroughly ill-informed and confused between these two issues. It dragged on for hours, far longer than had been scheduled. At one stage the YM clerk appealed for the meeting first to discuss management structure then to discuss trusteeship but YM paid no heed. One reason I say it was ill informed was that clearly most contributors had little or no knowledge of management structures nor of trusts except what had been said earlier and that some had experience of essentially very simple trusts run by a few trustees and perhaps one staff person. Quite unlike the complexity of YM or indeed of a MM. The term 'managing trustee' was bandied about as if this were a category of trustee but in fact the term has no legal significance. There was also the (in my opinion) myth that MfS was too big. The RECAST proposals were very clear; MfS was to set policy and the long range plan but not interfere in management and the committee I would call the executive was to implement the plan but not be decisive on policy. A similar model was envisaged for MMs.

Most of what Chris says is an excellent case for MM to have a committee to handle most of its administrative work. This could be a new committee or as we have a General Committee (whose terms of reference say it deals only with property and finance, though in fact it does more) we could simply expand its terms of reference.

However, there is no need to make any changes in our MM structure. These are simply suggestions based on RECAST’s (somewhat unrealistic) proposals in order to relieve MM in session of some administrative obligations.

So that has dealt with our structure! Having decided that, we can then turn to the question of trusteeship, a concern that has emerged late in the debate due to imminent legal changes. Just as MfS was and still is the trustees of national or central work so MM could be its own trustees. I will deal with the quite trivial problems in a moment.

Friends must realise that by definition the trustees are in control. The body that has control is the trustees. We might be permitted to include phrases in the governing documents that hint strongly that the trustees should accept the larger body’s policy but when push comes to shove the trustees will have all the weight of law and other authority behind them. If we had a decision such as whether to back the Faslane civil disobedience then if our trustees said no we would have no grounds at all (besides setting up another organisation) to oppose them. I know of two disputes in other Yms one of which involved conflict over whether an income-generating block of flats should be used in part as a Peace Centre, the other currently over whether a so called Quaker School which has lost virtually all its Quaker characteristics should be retained or cut loose. These are the sort of conflicts where trustees are often not willing to accept the discernment of the larger body. Trustees have the sole responsibility for establishing what actions conform to the Objects stated in the governing document, without even any reference to MM (except over such matters as selling meeting houses, but they still have the last word).

Why am I passionate about this? It’s because I have been an active member of quite a few Meetings in three to four Yearly Meeting and I have witnessed or been involved in meetings that were in severe conflict. Governing documents, constitutions, are only of real importance when there is a difference of opinion. We cannot assume there will never be conflict within our MM. We must consider ‘the worst case scenario’ rather than work on the basis that we will all jog along amiably for ever. If that were the case we would not need church government or governing documents.

In most cases of bitter conflict leading to strife I have observed that there had been neglect or rejection of our ‘gospel order’. Our system that was laid down by George Fox has worked well through several very different centuries and has produced a distinctive and valuable organisation. We may not be much good at expansion and mission but we are pre-eminent amongst Christian and other faiths for our beneficial effectiveness in world problems that really matter. That is not some co-incidence, it is a result of our structure the essential feature of which is that all members may take part in the decision making process. MfS or Representaive Council as some other YMs call their equivalent is an attempt to retain this large-body management structure without having a YM every month. And it too has worked. It has gone through bad patches but when well led such as by Roger Sturge (who realised that most members did not appreciate their role and their authority, and so instituted induction training) it works well.

In the same way all the many MMs have worked tolerably well on the basis that every member who is interested or concerned may take part in the decision making process.

I am certain that if we put our decision making into the hands of a few carefully selected weighty experienced Friends under the control of the Charity Commission and with continual reminders that they are jointly and severally i.e. individually responsible at law for their decision making it will change the nature of our Society.

Maybe we will become far more efficient, maybe outreach will become more effective, and even overseas mission. But we will not be the same.

What’s worse, there is no need for us to hand over to a small body of trustees. It’s based on the myth that the Charity Commission demands it. It does not! All the CC say is that if you have more than 50 trustees, then on your annual return please we only want to have details of 50 of them.

MM in session could meet twice a year as trustees, to do the essential business of checking that whoever was responsible - the Clerk, the General Committee, or Admin committee - were doing things right. They would just need to receive reports and ensure that the annual report was sent to the CC. What structure existed besides the trustees is as I’ve said another matter.

The only real argument against ‘all’ members MM being trustees is that the CC say a very few may not be trustees. i.e. employees, undischarged bankrupts, the insane, etc. This would be an easy problem to overcome. For instance when the MM met as trustees the clerk could simply announce that certain categories should leave the room, as the clerk does now when membership matters are discussed. Or the membership secretary could ask all members by circular letter whether any of the conditions applied and would tell the clerk if during a trustee session one of these were present. The same mechanism could ensure that no employees etc appeared on the annual return to the CC.

All the other reasons given for arguing that the trustee body should be small are in fact arguments for an executive or administrative committee - arguments with which I agree. Such a committee would respond to the guidance, the supervision, of MM just as now any committee does. Already MM demands that its committees report to it. All that MM in trustee mode need do is ensure what should happens now continues to happen.

The other reason is psychological. I know that not only are most trustees selected on the basis of characteristics which are not typical of the average member, but that when sitting as a trustee one’s mindset is quite different from that which prevails in MM. One is acutely conscious of the legal requirements and the awful penalties for neglect. (Trustees do not have the ‘limited liability’ enjoyed by company directors. Their liability is limitless.)

That reminds me of another point. Most charities having looked into these issues realise that the best structure is to set up as a company limited by guarantee then to register the company with the charity commission. Why not adopt that structure? Why should some of our number be saddled with the dreadful responsibility of trusteeship?

One more point. I have been convinced that we have no realistic option but to register with the CC. However I know that at least one quite knowledgeable member thinks that this is a bad move. He is convinced that the CC is not always the mild, benign, permissive regulator that most of us assume it to be.

So to sum up. I propose:

  1. We should keep our Monthly Meeting in session as our decision making body.
  2. If we register with the Charity Commission we should make our MM in session our trustees. MM would continue to meet monthly but twice a year it would go into Trustee mode.
  3. If we want an admin committee we should expand the role of General Committee, They probably would not need to be registered as a charity in addition to MM itself.
  4. General Committee should continue to supervise the MM’s current charities as it does now, on behalf of MM.

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