Thursday 6 August 2015

Charisma, passion and dedication don’t trump good governance

Charisma – that indefinable something that draws people to you, that influences them, that makes them want to be on your team.  Passion and dedication are other qualities that are often found in the charitable sector and individuals with just these qualities founded many great charities. I would argue that many others have fallen by the wayside because of poor governance and a lack of foresight (no competent people around you to challenge and no succession planning).

This is simplistic but prompted by the collapse of “Kids Company”.  No one knows everything that went wrong but I suspect that the charisma of the chief executive is central. Much is being made of how she was trumpeted by celebrities and politicians – everyone wanted to be on her team and perhaps the proper challenge was missing, as was the scrutiny?

It seems extraordinary that a charity of nearly 20 years standing was still leading a hand to mouth existence. Additionally, in a charity of that size and complexity, if her presence was so critical after all this time that it could not operate without her – that is a failure and she should take the responsibility. I hope that supporters will divert their funds to the other organisations that will be left to pick up the pieces.

Good governance is boring, it doesn’t grab the headlines and it won’t raise money, cure diseases or help vulnerable children but it needs to infuse everything that you do and it trumps charisma.

One anecdote from my own experience: some years ago, when I was chief executive of Breast Cancer Campaign (recently merged into Breast Cancer Now)    I was contacted by a very high profile individual who was supporting the charity. They had been introduced to a very impressive (and charismatic) clinician who had apparently cured a friend’s skin cancer with a “revolutionary” new treatment. He was sure that it would work for breast cancer.

Now the boring bit: we, like all respected medical research charities, had a process called “peer review”.  This is where a research proposal is scrutinised by independent, highly qualified individuals who then mark it according to various criteria. Those marks and comments are collated and then debated by a scientific committee and the application sinks or swims.  Is it tedious and laborious? does it rely on hours of unpaid work by scientist? - yes to all of those – is it perfect?  No – but it is the best and fairest system.

Our supporter went back to the clinician who said that he was far too busy treating patients to fill in lengthy application forms. Our supporter contacted me again and insisted that this clinician was so talented (and supported by several celebrities who would then apparently support us) that these rules shouldn’t apply to him.

Of course we wanted to play on his team and be sprinkled with that stardust and it was tempting to break the rules “just this once” but the consequences could have damaged the charity’s reputation and drawn funding away from worthwhile research.

Needless to say we never received an application, the research didn’t receive funding and after the supporter accused me of condemning women to die of breast cancer we lost his support too.

I was fortunate to have a board and staff who were never hesitant about challenging me. Occasionally it was unfair and unjustified and they were proved to be wrong and I was right – but hey – that’s life! It’s also good governance.