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Letters / A Charitable Clusterbuckle

What was interesting about Thursday’s Shetland Charitable Trust meeting was that almost every trustee who spoke (including the mover and seconder of the motion to end democratic control of the trust) said the reorganisation scheme, bequeathed to us by a rump of former trustees, was more or less a bad idea.

Several said they were only agreeing to it with regret and because they were worried about what the regulator would do if they didn’t go ahead with this so-called reform.

The decision, in short, was taken under duress.

But, even then, this craven, abject surrender could only muster 10 votes from the 20 trustees eligible to vote, and that on a three-line whip.

At this meeting it wasn’t enough to win the argument. You also had to confront fear; fear that had been carefully and deliberately planted in trustees’ minds, not least by the Scottish Charity Regulator, who’s shown himself to be a bit of a dud, and a bully with it.

After studying the charity regulator ‘s behaviour over the past year, I regret to say that I now feel obliged to put him on a strict regime of special scrutiny.

From now on I’ll be watching his every move, for he doesn’t seem to have the full skill set.

I know he’s new to the job and there’s something called a learning curve, but this fellow’s curve is unusually steep.

He seems to be struggling a bit, and a spot of intense supervision may help him to improve his game and become less of a “random”.

The regulator is good at some parts of the job, to be sure: he can be brilliantly inflexible and arbitrary; the ability to stick rigidly to his interpretation of the rules is world class; and there’s no-one like him for refusing to discuss sensible and workable compromises.

But my own evidence-based, peer-reviewed performance management analysis of his outcomes for key stakeholders reveals serious deficiencies.

So what, exactly, has the regulator done wrong?

He’s approved, and then used threats to force trustees to agree to, a botched reorganisation of the trust that fails to deliver the objectives both he and his predecessor set for it, along with the trust’s own Governance Review Group:

* the new constitution doesn’t have the desired mix of elected and appointed trustees;
* it doesn’t remove the public perception that councillors will have undue influence over the trust; and
* it doesn’t resolve the very serious problem over the grouping of accounts, which is a clear threat to the independence of the trust.

It is, in short, a turkey. It won’t fly far and very soon the regulator himself will have to ask that it be revised to make it fit for purpose, not least because no self-respecting democratic citizen in Shetland would wish to accept unpaid appointment to the unelected majority rule that the regulator has imposed on the charitable trust.

No-one, surely, needs the public opprobrium that will go with being the regulator’s trusty rather than the community’s trustee?

In the Gaeltacht they have a single word for this sort of mess – a boorach. I suppose the Shetland equivalent is a snood or a buckle or, in this case, perhaps, a clusterbuckle.

The situation is bad, but it can be fixed. Some of us have already explained how and why. We won the argument but lost the battle when the regulator threatened to go nuclear and cowed 10 other trustees (eight of them elected councillors) into submission because they feared what he might do to the trust if he got hold of it.

Both of the “independent” trustees voted for surrender, by the way, one of them the sovereign’s local representative, in a parallel incarnation.

Hopefully this excursion in the direction of 17th century absolutism will end soon, with the trust still intact under a reformed 21st century constitution that really will be effective and long-lasting.

Whether the regulator’s reputation can be rescued depends on how he responds to the personal career development programme I’m putting together for him.

This will include a refresher course in:
* doing research to check you have your facts right;
* basing your arguments on evidence;
* listening to what objectors say;
*answering their points with detailed, rational argument;
* distinguishing between assertion and proof;
* delegating important tasks to people who know what they’re talking about;
* not charging trustees with ‘misconduct’ when they’re only doing their duty;
* remembering that you’re a public servant, not King Charles I.

Jonathan Wills
Trustee
Shetland Charitable Trust

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