Relationship Breakdown: What are Trustees Doing?

Two organisations I am currently working with have really difficult relationships with other agencies which should be key partners and collaborators. It’s difficult to pin down the cause and origins of the tensions though I think the (increasingly?) competitive and complex environment in which social purpose organisations have to operate is a major factor.  There are pressures from outside and within, to broaden activities, services, beneficiaries and geographical scope – to do more. But there is a fine line between growth and diversification to fill gaps (good!) and growing for its own sake – empire building and expansionism (bad!).  And how it looks may depend on which side of the fence you sit.

But we shouldn’t simply blame the prevailing economic and political climate. Quite frankly, some of the poor relationships I see are down to poor communication, misinformation and more commonly misinterpretation. And frequently there is too much harking back to decisions and incidents of the past. Naturally, personal relationships are crucial too – especially between sector leaders – but professionals should be able, and be expected to, rise above the personal for the sake of their organisation and, especially, their beneficiaries. Poor relationships with key stakeholders and partners inevitably hold organisations back and divert energy from the organisation’s beneficiaries.

So, what’s the answer? Well, of course it’s not the entire solution but I firmly believe Trustees (and Directors) have a crucial role to play. If you’re a Trustee or Director and your organisation has a poor or perhaps even a “toxic” relationship with another which is holding things back, unsettling funders and commissioners and  causing your Chief Executive and other staff stress and anxiety – then it is your duty to try and do something about it. The Trustee Board needs to “own” the problem.

What you do will depend on the nature of the “problem”. It may start with your Chair having an informal conversation with the “other” Chair. Or a joint discussion that also involves the two Chief Executives. Trustees could work with their own staff team to come up with creative, and perhaps very simple and practical, ways of breaking through the relationship blocks.  Building relationships and re-establishing trust  by taking small practical steps can enable the staff (and trustees) of the two organisations to get to know each other at an operational level, rather than trying to tackle the elephant in the room head on. Either way, trustees have a responsibility to act. And act in a way which keeps the ultimate focus on the needs of their beneficiaries – the people and communities they serve.