Secret charity CEO: “The chair’s inactivity is causing huge delays”

As part of a new series, a secret charity CEO documents some of their issues relating to charity leadership. This month, a CEO is frustrated with the chair's random disappearing acts.

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The great thing about being the chair of a rapidly growing small charity is that you can get involved with the things that interest you and completely disengage with those that don’t. WRONG.

Unfortunately, this is the approach of our chair. The number of emails I’ve sent to him marked ‘important’ or even ‘urgent’ and never ever had a reply could not be counted on one hand, or even two. Recently I started counting my unsuccessful chase-up attempts with a view to sending a big chase-up email and found that there are several issues I’ve raised with him that I’ve chased-up three times and still received no reply.

He often goes for weeks at a time without replying to any emails at all. This is even more frustrating because he insists on my communication with the board through him wherever possible and has been known to send me a terse ‘holding email’ whenever I email the board directly.

I have been a trustee for a number of years, so I’m only too aware that being a trustee is challenging and can be time-consuming. Being a voluntary role, it can mean that our day jobs much take priority. I get it.

I have realistically low expectations of my chair and only send him emails when I need his input.

What frustrates me most about these disappearing acts is that he can quickly reappear, emerging from the shadows of deafening email silence like a spectre, to send an email with a list of demands about operational activities that he’s got a particular interest in or views on. These demands always relate to something far less important than the many issues that he’s ignored and rarely require any input from trustees.

The big challenge for any CEO in this situation is striking the right balance between trying to maintain a friendly working relationship with the chair and getting answers to issues that require board input. This is a balance I’ve failed spectacularly to strike – our relationship is strained and there’s a huge list of things that have been delayed due to his selective inactivity.

Due to a combination of the aforementioned strained relationship and – I would argue – his attempts to control my communication with the wider board, every time an important board decision is required, a pre-meeting meeting with just trustees is hastily organised a few days before the actual meeting. These meetings are always quite mysterious. I’m never officially told that they’re taking place until afterwards and there’s never any minutes or record of the meetings. Whenever I ask (and I do ask), to see the minutes or a record of what was discussed, I am met with cryptic responses like “I can assure you that we will keep you fully informed of any decisions taken” or “the board is aligned on X”.

Whilst it’s understandable that trustees should have informal discussions from time to time, feeling the need to hold meetings, when trustees’ time is precious, a few days before official minuted meetings on the very same topic makes me wonder what is being discussed in my absence. I’ve only ever known CEOs to be excluded from board discussions when their conduct or salary is being discussed and I’m definitely not anticipating getting a pay rise anytime soon. ■

If you can relate to the issues mentioned in this article, or if you would like to anonymously document some of your own challenges, get in touch at editor@charitytimes.com. All names will remain anonymous throughout.

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