Recent revelations about a long-running spat among the trustees of The Actors' Benevolent Fund (ABF) have led to a very public dressing down from the Charity Commission for failings in governance. Justine McCluskey explores what led to the downfall and the difficult journey ahead for the new trustees.
With assets of over £30 million and a membership laden with Britain's glittering national treasures of stage and screen, the Actors' Benevolent Fund (ABF) is one of the world's oldest and, likely, most successful charities dedicated to the care of thespians who have fallen on hard times. But when the board of trustees has such a flair for the theatrical, it is perhaps no wonder that they should occasionally find themselves centre stage in a little drama of their own. Such was the case recently, when the trustees received a very public dressing down from the Charity Commission for failings in governance.
A long-running spat among the trustees, including allegations of bullying and harassment which led to an independent investigation last year, has been regrettably well-publicised (Fear and loathing at actor's charity over ousting of octogenarian trustees (thetimes.co.uk). At the heart of the issue was a feeling among some (generally, younger) trustees that the ABF should modernise its approach and attempt to tackle issues relevant to the 21st century, increasing focus on diversity and considering how they might better provide support for mental health issues (among others).
This ultimately led to a controversial ousting of the long-standing council of trustees, but the Charity Commission was forced to intervene when procedural irregularities at the charity's AGM left the organisation with no trustees in place to make decisions at all. The Charity Commission used its powers to appoint a new council of trustees and ordered the charity to take various steps to improve its governance. However, perhaps more damaging is the public admonition it delivered to those involved in 'a bitter dispute that has not served the interests of the charity's members or beneficiaries and has been harmful to the charity's reputation and its ability to operate effectively'.
It is probably safe to conclude that the new trustees acted with good intentions and a genuine desire to bring the ABF into the 21st century. Indeed, in March 2023 they formally unveiled their 'new vision' for the charity, including plans to offer therapy, and a scheme awarding cost-of-living grants. It is not uncommon for trustees to have differing ideas about how a charity might ultimately achieve its objectives (in this case, assisting actors and other stage professionals in need), but the key issue is how such disputes are handled.
In the last year, donations to the ABF have halved, and at least one of the ousted trustees has already confirmed their intention to remove the charity from their Will. Charitable legacies are often the lifeblood of organisations such as the ABF, and if they want to have the resources to fund their grand ambitions, the trustees will now have to undertake a serious rehabilitation of their image if they are to restore public confidence in the organisation. A more orderly, and less acrimonious, transition of power (handled internally rather than played out on the public stage) would undoubtedly have served the beneficiaries of the ABF better in the long run. When dealing with public funds, reputation is everything.
It is also clear that the Charity Commission has taken the view that there were issues within the constitution of the ABF which allowed this situation (where significant assets were left with no one to manage them) to arise. Regardless of the novelty of this scenario, it is essential that a charity has a robust constitution fit to govern the workings of the organisation, kept under regular review to ensure that it remains relevant. Suggestion that the ABF's constitution was not up to standard will undoubtedly serve to further damage the charity's reputation.
A final take-home is the importance of having an appropriate forum for trustee discussion. Dame Penelope Keith has blamed the rise of the Zoom meeting for the friction that arose among trustees, as she and many of the former trustees found this to be an ineffective means of communication which excluded certain trustees from having their say. Video calls undoubtedly have their benefits in terms of accessibility, but it is important that charity trustees review their meeting procedures on a regular basis, to ensure that the opportunity for productive discussion is maximised.
In essence, if good intentions and philanthropic ideals are the heart and soul of the charity, then good governance through adherence to a well drafted constitution is the backbone without which it simply cannot stand. When words fail, we (like our friends in the arts) can always rely on The Bard to say it best:-
"Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself and what remains is bestial." (Othello, Act 2, Sc. 3).
A famous line from another tale of backstabbing, perilous pride and public unravelling, one might conclude that the new trustees of the Actors' Benevolent Fund ought to heed the warning else they may shortly find themselves exiting stage left.
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