Saturday, 17 February 2018

In Defence of Governance

A drawing of a pinboard covered in blank piece of paper and sticky notes, with a larger central note reading "MAKE THINGS HAPPEN".
In my experience, Quakers don't much like to talk about governance. As I write this, however, I am in the process of putting together written material for my Area Meeting's annual report, so governance comes to my mind.
I think Friends don't like it much because of the implications it carries in terms of authority and control, but that's not what it's used to mean in the context of organisational governance. Governance is about how decisions are made, and we have our own vital Quaker traditions in that regard. It's also about how records are kept, how we communicate, and how we take all the decisions that, for legal or practical reasons, can't be taken by the Meeting in session.
There will be examples in this post. Some of them are from my direct experience, and others are second-hand, and I will not be differentiating between them. None will be in enough detail to know about who or where, though some readers might think they recognise the source, because many of these things have private elements; I expect more people will think they recognise the source than actually know anything about the situation I have drawn upon, so please do not post in a way that seeks or seems to identify any specific cases. They merely serve to illustrate the general points.
We like to think that Quakers are non-hierarchical, but it won't appear so to those looking at the structures of our organisations. Since the establishment of Quaker gospel order in the seventeenth century, and all its evolutions since, we have had systems of nested structure. In Britain Yearly Meeting, we have Local Meetings, the individual worshipping groups; several of these group together to form an Area Meeting, and seventy of those group together, along with the various centrally organised elements, to form the Yearly Meeting. Not that long ago, the individual worshipping group was generally a Preparatory Meeting and the groups of these were Monthly Meetings, but it was determined that the change of language was more understandable to newcomers or those outside the Society, and probably better in terms of plain speaking, too. Go back further, and Monthly Meetings were organised into Quarterly Meetings or General Meetings, an intermediate layer of nesting, but these were phased out on a practical basis in most of the country some time ago, while they were phased out generally (with certain limited exceptions) at the same time as PMs became LMs and MMs became AMs.
In North America, liberal and conservative Yearly Meetings generally have Monthly Meetings as the basic worshipping group, which may or may not be grouped into Quarters or Quarterly Meetings before being grouped into a Yearly Meeting. Structures in pastoral and evangelical Yearly Meetings are more varied, though some have a similar structure. In addition, there are three umbrella associations which YMs can affiliate to; broadly, Friends General Conference (FGC) is an association of liberal and conservative YMs, Friends United Meeting (FUM) is an association of pastoral YMs, and Evangelical Friends Church International (EFCI, formerly EFI) is an association of evangelical YMs. All three have affiliates outside of the US, and at least FUM and EFCI have affiliates outside of North America. However, it is not the case that YMs are subordinate to these structures; they are simply affiliates. A YM may affiliate to more than one, and I understand that in some YMs, MMs might be “part of” more than one YM.
With this sort of variation around the world, one question that is always worth considering is the distribution of authority and responsibility between Meetings. In Britain YM, where authority exists within the organisations and structures, it is largely central; Yearly Meeting sets down reporting requirements and duties of AMs, defines how marriages are to be conducted, sets out various procedures. However, YM is composed of AMs, and the Friends each holds membership of. There are concerns, that I shan't go into at this time, about the amount of de facto authority in the hands of national staff, but key decision-making goes on at Yearly Meeting in session, which all members are free to attend; between Yearly Meetings, it happens at Meeting for Sufferings, a body composed of representatives from Area Meetings and a few other bodies, or sometimes delegated to another central committee – which will be composed of more unpaid volunteer Friends, and answerable to Sufferings. Where new business comes to Sufferings or YM in session, it is largely either forced on us by circumstance, or has arisen in a Local or Area Meeting, been tested in the AM in question, and passed by minute to Sufferings. These are key principles and practices of our governance structure, and each YM will have its own way of doing things that might distribute power and responsibility differently, but structures must exist if a YM is to be a single Meeting, rather than simple a confederation of worshipping groups. Even where authority is vested ultimately in the individual Meeting (or congregation), governance structures for the YM must exist to allow for the interaction of those authorities and resolving differences in order to act collectively.
But wait, say some Friends. Do we really need all of this structure and organisational baggage? Do we really need (in the UK) to be registered charities with all of the reporting and associated governance requirements?
Well, it depends what we want to achieve. If we want nothing more than to be a series of groups of people that get together to worship in a particular way, then we need much less than we have. We don't need premises; venue hire isn't too steep, and it's not like there's huge competition for venues on a Sunday morning – and we don't even need to always meet at that time. We don't need to have much communication with other groups. We just meet, contribute what we can to meet the costs of running our Meetings for Worship, appoint a few Friends to do the small amount of work necessary for all of that, and we'd be good to go.
That isn't what being a Quaker is about, though. Being a Quaker is not, and has never been, about subscribing to a set of shared beliefs, or turning up at Meeting for Worship. Our faith calls for transformation in ourselves, as do many others, but that is not all. From early in the life of our Religious Society, we have felt called to do more – to transform the world, to the extent of our ability. “True godliness don't turn men out of the world,” said Penn, “but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavours to mend it.” Scattered worship groups might do good work, especially in terms of fund raising, to support whatever local concern draws their attention, but they would lack the clout to make government pay any attention to what they have to say. They would not be able to pool enough resources to take on big projects, being limited instead to supporting the projects that others engage in – and we have often felt led to projects and causes that are neglected by others, though we often find others join in once we get the ball rolling.
Once we build the resources necessary to do our work, it's necessary that those resources be managed, and necessary that the work be managed. If we wish to act in the manner of a charity, it becomes necessary to register as charities. If we wish to maintain our privileged position of performing legally valid marriages according to our own traditional usage, we have to play ball on the requirements of doing so – though we have certainly shown willing to push on that matter when led to do so. If we have structures to enable our cooperation, across Meetings in different areas, across the range of people and communities represented across a Yearly Meeting – or across the world – we have to make sure those structures run efficiently, and effectively, and according to Quaker principles.
And so, I am compiling and writing material for an annual report. One of the major purposes of these reports, in terms of the regulatory framework in which they sit, is to assure good governance. The aim is to ensure that those entrusted with the resources of the charity are using them for legitimate purposes, and purposes that are in line with the stated purposes of the charity. That they are well-managed, and compliant with other laws that apply to all organisations, such as those around data protection and safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults, or health and safety law and the Equality Act. That there is suitable accountability within the organisation, and external to it.
All that is true for all charity trustees, and the principles of good governance apply to us as to anyone else. However, we are organised in very unusual ways, with very unusual decision-making systems. Understanding how to apply these principles in the context of a Quaker organisation can be difficult (and has presented challenges for Quaker organisations in England and Wales in terms of their relationship with the Charity Commission, though this has been improved by the work done to enable the registration of all Area Meetings as charities). In explaining some ways in which they can be made to fit in to Quaker structures – or indeed in which they already do, inherently in Quaker methods, though we might not recognise it – perhaps I can help people see why they are not something purely worldly, but something that should be inherent to our properly conducting our affairs in our own way.
Good governance is accountable. In corporate governance in the business world, this means that the executives are accountable to directors, who are accountable to shareholders – and all accountable to government and regulation, of course. This is a chain of representation, as well, with generally some senior executives also being directors, and directors appointed by the shareholders. There is often a plutocratic–democratic element to this representation, with shareholders electing directors based on one share, one vote (as opposed to one person, one vote, and setting aside complications like non-voting shares). In unincorporated associations and companies limited by guarantee, the legal structures most commonly found underlying Quaker organisations in the UK, you generally have a defined membership and officers are democratically elected by that membership, with the membership as a whole able to vote on certain matters.
Accountability for Quakers means that everything is accountable to the Meeting as a whole. Just as our clerks are servants of the Meeting, and our elders, and overseers, and treasurers, trustees are also servants of the Area Meeting. We are not nominated to be in charge, we are not (or at least should not be) set above other Friends, the arbiters of what the Meeting as a whole should do. Trustees are held responsible, by law, for certain things on behalf of the whole Meeting, and in those things we must, in all reasonableness, vest trustees with certain authority, but that authority is always subordinate to the gathered Meeting. When trustees dictate certain actions that may not be in their remit, not explicitly delegated to them by the Area Meeting as a whole, it is not that they are superior and can overrule the AM; such an action should only be taken where the trustees have determined, after due discernment and taking relevant advice, that there is a fundamental problem that must be resolved – usually of a legal nature. So trustees may demand that a Local Meeting stop some activity that they have been engaged in because it would threaten the charitable status of the entire AM; they may demand that various parts of the AM take certain actions, because failure to do so is exposing the AM to legal liabilities. While some matters, such as disposition of property not used for religious purposes, is often entirely delegated to trustees, these overriding concerns can occur in any area of Quaker activity – including worship.
It would not be good governance, however, for the trustee body to simply dictate such things and expect them to be done. Good governance is accountable and is, to the extent possible, open. If a problem to be resolved is not immediate, it should not be treated as such; if it is possible to take time to help Friends understand the problem and resolve it collectively, rather than by what would appear to be trustee diktat, then it is best to do so. If it must be resolved as a matter of urgency, care should be taken to explain as much as possible as soon as possible. Furthermore, while it is trustees that have a special legal responsibility that will most obviously lead to such actions, we must not lose sight of the fact that we also expect other role holders to take urgent actions without time to explain and discuss beforehand; elders, individually or collectively, may have to take immediate action in some circumstances, as will overseers, those involved in safeguarding, and even those to whom we give responsibility for premises and finance. Our clerks, in their role as the interface between our Meetings and the world at large, must often speak for us – and sometimes it is necessary for them to do so between business meetings, when they will be seen as speaking with the voice of the Meeting without being able to collectively discern and minute what they should say. All of these cases are necessary, and many of them are preferable over referring everything back to a business meeting. It is simply necessary that those who act in such a manner explain themselves fully and promptly, as appropriate to the situations.
Accountability, and being servants of the Meeting, also means that trustees should act as their Meeting directs. Because of legal considerations, and the competing requirements of good governance, this cannot be done uncritically, and a healthy relationship between a trustee body and the Meeting that appoints it will mean that stark directions should no more be the norm from the Meeting to the trustee body than vice versa. However, instruction, request or advice from any part of the Meeting should be taken as a significant factor in the deliberations, discernment and decisions of trustees.
Good governance means the exercise of leadership. This does not mean command, or even necessarily always direction, but the setting of good examples and the application of oversight. This goes hand-in-hand with accountability; as well as the trustees being accountable to the Meeting as a whole, any part of the Meeting will also be accountable to trustees, and in exercising leadership trustees must ensure the good governance of all parts of the Meeting besides themselves. Trustees should exemplify good Quaker decision-making practice, prayerful discernment and proper consideration of all information available as well as seeking guidance of the Spirit. Trustees should be integrated in the community, not apart from it, and thus in touch with the concerns of the community.
Good governance is also efficient and well-run. As Quakers, we might take longer to take decisions about things, but this should not lead to cutting corners. It is vital that, as a committee, trustees be effectively administrated and smooth in its communication, both among members and with the rest of the Meeting. Being well-run also means taking care of those we ask to do work on our behalf. Burn-out on the part of a person in a very responsible role can have significant consequences for the individual, as well as for an organisation. As a do-it-yourself faith community – in the sense that we, as a community, do most of the necessary work ourselves – we place great trust in one another, and take on significant work in many cases. We must be prepared for the situation in which an individual crumbles under the weight of the work, despite their best intentions; similarly, and individual Friend can become unable to put as much time and effort into a role as they once had, due to changes or events elsewhere in their life, and we must be prepared for such occurrences.
The risks inherent in poor governance are potentially very large. We don't like to think that Quakers are prone to corruption, but we are. Quakers have embezzled from their Meetings. They have used expenses inappropriately (though under-claiming is far more common in my experience). They have taken procurement decisions for inappropriate reasons. Strong oversight with the principles of good governance in mind reduces these risks.
Governance can also be poor by virtue of being overcautious, too worried about risks, or tending to over-inflate them. In one case, a cooperative venture between Meetings, involving one making use of the resources of another, with mutually agreed consideration, was thrown into disorder when the trustees of the Meeting making use of the resources realised that they hadn't looked at the agreement and the activities in question for some time. The cooperation was laid down, perhaps prematurely, but even the advocates of that cooperation were relieved to lay it down due to the difficulty that had had working with trustees. It is perfectly possible that the end result would have been the same even with better governance, but the lack of communication and accountability between organs of the same Meeting – and with the other Meeting – caused considerable bad feeling, and it is also possible that, had it been handled more appropriately, it would have produced a different outcome and continued cooperation.
But it was not the fault of the trustees in post at the time that the governance of the matter was poorer than might be desired. Arguably, it should be seen as the fault of the trustee body over a longer period, and perhaps of the Meeting as a whole, that trustees were in a position of realising that they had very limited idea what was being done by and in the name of their Meeting in relation to that cooperation.
It can be the case that a short-term project (in the order of years) has its own treasurer, and that treasurer may have to handle considerable sums for that short time. Much money coming in, and much money going out. It is tempting to arrange those financial matters in such a way that the treasurer can get things done as quickly as possible, but that means reduced oversight. Even if that treasurer does not give in to temptation to embezzle money, even if they are not tempted, this can be very disconcerting. In addition, effective financial oversight does not only guard against peculation, but also mistakes. Where someone has to pay for a large number of similar, but not identical items or services, it is a reassurance as well as a sensible protection that they not be solely relied upon to ensure that they have got the details and prices of each item right. In this case, as in any other, the need for multiple individuals to authorise payments and sign off on purchase orders not only reduces the risk of damaging errors or misappropriation of funds, it can be tremendously reassuring to the individual involved.
A computer generated image of a wireframe sculpture of a person, on fire.
Where a Meeting puts significant responsibilities on a single Friend, such as a clerk – especially a clerk with specific responsibility for record-keeping – or a treasurer, that situation is particularly vulnerable to damaging results due to a failure on the part of that Friend, whether that failure is due to events in their life or simply failing to live up to the hopes their Meeting had in them for that role. Records may need to be reconstructed from other sources after being accidentally lost or disposed of, or a new treasurer pick up the pieces of incredibly disordered financial records where a predecessor ceased to effectively perform their role some time before asking to be released. It may turn out that records of personal information of members and/or attenders have been quietly left without any updates for months before anyone realises, because the expectations we put on one another are such that people feel unable to admit their failings. This leads to the results of such problems growing and growing quietly, and becoming more difficult to conceal yet also more difficult to admit.
It is also a failure of good governance to hold that some important task is the responsibility of all members of a community without having any process in place to ensure that it is carried out. It is a common experience that, where something is everyone's responsibility, it is effectively no-one's responsibility. A small gathering might decide that no named elder is needed, and discover that periods of worship – or even silent grace at meals – extend far longer than expected because no-one feels able to signal an end. Where pastoral care is everyone's responsibility and no-one has taken it on specifically, all but the most obvious situations requiring attention will go neglected, as no-one feels they have the authority to, as they might see it, pry into someone else's difficulties.
These are all factors that represent risks for all parts of a Meeting's governance, trustees and clerks and the actual Meetings for Worship for Business themselves, and every other element. Every part of that, including trustees, also has the potential to build good governance and uphold one another, not with unnecessary procedures that bog down the Spirit, but with necessary and/or helpful processes that allow the Spirit to flow freely without so much worry about unexpected crises, or being horribly disrupted by organisational disasters.
Where trustees exercise dictatorial control over their Meetings, that is not good governance. Where the opinions of clerks are reflected consistently in minute, that is not good governance. Where elders quash every move for innovation, for trying new things and experiencing the Spirit in different ways, that is not good governance. But all of those roles, and more, done rightly, are vital to good governance that allows our organisations to run smoothly, effectively, and without damaging regulatory or legal entanglements.
Good governance is not antithetical to Quaker principles. Rigid, power-based governance is – but even in non-Quaker organisations, good governance is not entirely rigid and power-based. Good Quaker governance is collaborative, caring, and nurturing. It involves communication and understanding. It sets procedures that support us, rather than constrain unnecessarily; it is not shy of constraining where there is good reason, but it is also not slow to re-examine these constraints to see if they are still valid.
Good governance, including good trusteeship, uplifts our communities and allows Friends to be free of continuous concern for tasks that do not need the attention of everyone, but do need attention. Do not be scared of governance – be determined to get it right.
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