From Suzy Chapman & Ciaran Farrell
20 January 2008
In the January issue of ME Essential magazine, published this week, the ME Association announces the concept of “Associate trusteeship”.
MEA Chair, Neil Riley, presents “Associate trusteeship” as a means by which the charity might “expand the variety of skills available” and writes that “in order to facilitate this, [the MEA] has decided to trial a way of involving volunteers in the running of the Association on an informal basis.”
Mr Riley goes on to state:
“At present, trustees are either co-opted or formally elected to the Board. This system works well but it has not always been easy for members to commit themselves to give the time involved and the active participation required as trustees. Many members are too ill, some cannot travel, others have work or family commitments. This has limited the field of talented candidates who would otherwise have brought new skills and experience.
“The Board has therefore decided to try a system of “associate trusteeship”. It is envisaged that the associate will contribute to the discussions of the Board and be involved in projects undertaken by the charity. This will be an unofficial role as it will carry with it no voting rights in any decision taken by the Board. There will be no requirement for the associate to attend all Board Meetings. There will be no commitment on either the associate or the charity to continue the arrangement.
“This is only a trial and the Board will monitor closely how it works and the benefits that ensue. If it is successful then the system of “associate trusteeship” could be formalised and incorporated in the Articles of Association of the Charity, which are the rules which govern the running of the charity.”
Neil Riley, Chairman of The ME Association
ME Essential: Issue 105, January 2008, Page 4.
Last year, the MEA introduced a number of changes to its Mem & Arts, which included reducing the number of trustees that make up its Board from a maximum of twelve down to eight and reducing the minimum number of Board members from seven to five; the number required for a quorum for Board of Trustees meetings was also reduced from four to three.
There are currently six trustees on the Board. If existing Board members continue to stand for re-election when their turn to step down from the Board comes round under the “one third retirement rotation” clause, this reduction in the maximum number of trustees able to serve at any one time severely limits opportunities for “new blood” to join the Board through the AGM membership election process. It also increases the likelihood of a run off election where there are more candidates standing than seats available – in this situation, retiring trustees wishing to stand for re-election would be forced to compete against new candidates in order to retain their seats.
In accordance with its Mem & Arts, the Board also has provision to appoint up to two trustees a year though the process of co-option in between its annual AGM elections. The MEA favours appointing new trustees under this system since through the process of co-option it can retain tighter control over the make up of its Board.
In the summary of the November 2007 Board meeting, which is also published in the magazine, it is reported that several people had expressed an interest in becoming an MEA trustee and that three of these had met with the Board. Interestingly, none of those potential candidates who have met with the Board are standing for election this coming April alongside Mr Neil Riley and Mr Rick Osman – the two existing trustees due to retire, by rotation, at the forthcoming AGM and who are going round again – theirs are the only names which have gone through to the ballot paper.
Have some or all of those individuals who have had “informal discussions” about the role and responsibilities of a trustee been actively discouraged from putting themselves forward for election in April, or have they been persuaded to wait until after the AGM and apply to join the Board as co-optees or have some of them been offered “associate trusteeship” instead?
It isn’t clear from Mr Riley’s article how the Board intends to source candidates for these “associate trusteeships”. No information has been given about the process through which they will be recruited or how the skills they might bring to the organisation are to be identified and assessed; there are no details at all about how interested individuals should set about applying for these positions nor any invitation to discuss these positions further with the MEA.
No point of contact is given. So have individuals already been appointed to these “associate trusteeships” and if this is the case, who are they and how were they approached?
It isn’t clear whether “associates” are to be drawn from within the ME patient/carer community, itself, or whether they will be sourced from outside the ME community – for example, retired or semi retired or former professionals with a variety of backgrounds and skills but who do not necessarily have personal experience of the illness themselves.
It isn’t clear, either, through what channels these individuals would relate to the Board, what type of discussions they would be anticipated to input into and from what areas of discussion they might be excluded; what types of task might be delegated to them and who would be responsible for their supervision.
It isn’t clear whether they are to receive any training or induction in the work assigned to them or what documents, reports, minutes, other materials or access to staff will be made available to them in order that they are fully informed in the areas in which their assistance is required or for which their expertise and views are being sought – in other words, are they going to be provided with a proper and adequate brief in terms of both their role and the job they are to undertake and materials and human resources made available to them in order to discharge their role and perform the job for which they were appointed?
It isn’t clear, either, whether it would be anticipated that those holding these positions might attend some Board meetings and on what basis they would attend – as passive observers or as active participants in Board level discussions or in order only to report on specific projects to which they have been assigned?
We are told only that these positions would not carry with them the right to vote at Board level.
So how does the MEA envisage these appointments functioning within the framework of the organisation as a whole and within the day to day business of the Board responsible for running the MEA, for forming its policies and administering its funds?
We look forward to these issues being clarified by the MEA, for if insufficient consideration has been given to the matters of roles, responsibilities, lines of accountability and channels of communication then we foresee disaster.
There are also other important considerations. What are the implications for the status of these “associate trusteeships”. The MEA is a Charitable Company so its trustees are also its company directors; the names of the directors must be listed in the Report and Accounts submitted annually to Companies House and to the Charity Commission. Both charity trustees and directors of a Charitable Company have specifically defined legal obligations and responsibilities under both Charity and Company Law.
Should the positions held by these informal “volunteers” even be given a designation containing the word “trusteeship”? Has this concept been discussed by the Board with the Charity Commission? Would the MEA be permitted to seek to incorporate such a change into its Mem & Arts by formalising and incorporating this system into its Articles of Association?
One of the reasons given by Mr Riley for the introduction of “associate trusteeships” is that “it has not always been easy for members to commit themselves to give the time involved and the active participation required as trustees. Many members are too ill, some cannot travel, others have work or family commitments.”
The health status of those whose interests are represented by patient and campaigning organisations operating in the area of ME undoubtedly presents barriers to their becoming involved in the running of organisations at board of trustee/management committee level.
A few months ago, a former ME Association trustee who had served on the Board during the Val Hockey era told one of us that in their opinion patient and campaigning organisations should be run primarily by those who are not, themselves, affected by ME or caring for those with ME and furthermore that non membership organisations were the way to go because “members get in the way”.
Coming from an ME sufferer, themselves, this sent a cold shiver down the spine.
We do not believe that “members get in the way”.
We do believe that the policies of a patient organisation should be informed through consultation with the patient community it has been set up to represent and that an organisation should be expected to put in place whatever is required to enable its membership to play an active role in its management and in the development of its policies and that its trustees should be elected to the Board through democratic processes, otherwise we slide further and further down the slippery slope that AfME has already taken.
If the introduction of “associate trusteeships” is the MEA’s response to the problem of recruiting sufficient numbers of trustees of the calibre required, why is the MEA not prepared, instead, to put into practice the means by which those who do possess the necessary skills but who have special needs due to ill health and disability, are enabled to fully participate and play an effective part in the running of this organisation? In practice, the current Board has deployed a shocking level of disability discrimination in the past against at least one former trustee whose integration into the Board they did not wish to facilitate and it is clear that the Board has very selective policies towards accommodating the needs of some of its disabled colleagues.
The shortfall in manpower and skills identified by the Board has been exacerbated by the Board’s own decision to reduce the overall number of trustees that can join its ranks. Is the Board now seeking to make up that shortfall by recruiting “volunteers” on an informal basis, in ill-defined roles, to become involved in unspecified projects and to input into unspecified discussions, who have not been elected to these positions by the membership, who have no boardroom vote nor security of tenure, and who, accordingly, can be “hired and fired”, as the existing Board sees fit, and readily dispensed with if and when they start to challenge the Board’s policies?
Does the Board now intend to steer all prospective AGM election candidates into “associate trusteeship” where they will serve as a pool of casual labour or expertise from which potential co-optees might be plucked, if they are perceived as possessing useful skills to bring to the table and are considered suitably pliant material?
We predict that if this scheme were to be incorporated into the Articles of Association that the elimination of the means whereby trustees of the Board are elected democratically by the membership through the AGM election process will have been accomplished by stealth and that via these steps, the existing Board will have secured for itself total control over who joins its Board and who does not and it will have achieved the self perpetuating oligarchy and “mates club” it has sought to become, since Charles Shepherd got himself elected to the Board in December 2003.
The AGM trustee elections will become tokenistic and largely redundant – their only purpose to re-elect retiring trustees back into office.
Is this the route the membership wants the MEA to go down?
Suzy Chapman & Ciaran Farrell
20 January 2008