The old timer (part 1)
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Since Hugh stood down as chair of Homefront’s board, Ben, the director, has been struggling to keep the organisation afloat. Tonight he has called a board meeting to deal with funding issues that have left Homefront in peril.
Honey for tea
Ben paces the meeting room. "You did notify all the trustees of the meeting?"
"Yes," says Trish, the Housing Manager of Homefront, as she places an agenda in front of each empty chair around the table.
"We've got to get some decisions made tonight. Where is everyone?"
The door swings open and in walks Walter, a founder of Homefront, and its honorary vice chair.
“Bonsoir all! Is the kettle on?” As is his custom, he lays out three cups, deftly slices a lemon and brings out a jar of his favourite local honey, as though it were the queen’s jewels.
“Tonight mes amis, we have this exciting offering from Cottage Farm. It's an exclusive clear nectar, far superior to the set honey they usually make. You can even smell the June roses. Delicieux!”
Ben, long immune to this ritual, watches the clock.
"I’ll be happy to chair the meeting again, in Hugh’s absence,” beams Walter. Ben tries his best to dissuade him, but Walter is resolute. “I insist. Now try this! The rose will relax you.”
Ben, a confirmed espresso man, sips the unappealing cup of tea and wonders if tonight's meeting will be quorate…if anything at all will be achieved.
The agenda amender
Walter begins the meeting with the handful of trustees who’ve turned up, and first reads the long list of apologies for absence:
“Item one: the complaints book."
Everyone looks at their agendas in bewilderment. Trish points out that 'complaints' comes under 'any other business'.
“But it's an extremely pressing matter,” says Walter.
Ben is on the edge: “More pressing than our lack of funds?”
Walter is convinced, as ever, that he’s in the right. “The key to the success of Homefront has always been the way we deal with our clients. 12 outstanding complaints is simply not acceptable.”
Trish interjects wearily: "10 of those complaints are from Mabel Appleford who insists that her drains are blocked. We've sent a plumber over several times and there’s nothing wrong.”
Walter is steadfast: “But this is the heart of Homefront! The credibility of our organisation is at stake when our user complaints book is so full.”
Walter slowly stirs more precious honey into his second cup of tea.
Lorna, one of the trustees, is aware of Ben and Trish’s frustration, and speaks up.
“Walter, I think we have bigger problems on our hands. We’ve just lost £15,000 because we couldn’t raise the matched funding and we could be facing staff cuts.”
“Funding problems are hardly something new and we can't possibly make any big decisions tonight about staffing, as the meeting isn’t quorate. Never used to be such a poor show in the old days.”
“That’s because you're driving the other trustees away with your head in the sand obsession about the damn complaints!” Ben thinks angrily to himself.
Walter closes the meeting, shortly after suggesting three action points concerning Mabel Appleford and the user complaints procedure.
“And in view of such poor attendance I suggest we defer Ben’s funding proposals and staffing issues to our next meeting.”
Ben feels furious that once more Walter has pre-occupied the meeting with minutiae, whilst the very foundations of the charity are crumbling around them.
As he walks to his office he decides to call an emergency board meeting in an attempt to drum up flagging trustee support.
Walter crosses the line
Later that week, Trish is on the phone to a vulnerable young client, Kara, who had disappeared without a trace a fortnight ago. Walter hurries in, carrying a battered copy of 'French for Beginners'.
“Excusez-moi mademoiselle, may I have the keys?”
Trish swings her chair away from him, trying to focus on the call, “Kara, I’m so glad you called, love, we were worried sick. Are you alright?”
Walter hums La Vie en Rose, whilst rummaging noisily through drawers. Trish puts one finger in her ear.
“Don’t be upset, Kara, I’ll phone the hostel. See if they’ve got a room or…” She turns towards Walter and gestures for him to be quiet.
“I need the key, s’il vous plait,” Walter insists.
Trish nods with a forced smile. “Can you hold on Kara, I’ll be back in a second." She turns to Walter: "Which keys do you mean?”
Trish hands over the filing cabinet keys and rushes back to the call, “Hi Kara...Kara?" She’s hung up. "I knew that would happen. That’s a fortnight’s work, Walter.”
Walter smiles, apologetically. “Sorry. I’ve got to read these files before I have lunch with the mayor.” Walter begins flicking through the filing cabinet.
"Probably trying to find more petty complaints," Trish thinks to herself, as she leaves the office, fuming.
Trish comes clean
Outside the office, she takes out her 'emergency cigarette'. She’s about to light it when Ben snatches it out of her hand. “You’ve quit, remember?”
Trish breaks down.
“I can’t put up with it anymore! Walter’s meddling has jeopardised my work so many times. I know he means well, but…”
She confides in Ben that she’s thinking of resigning. Ben is devastated. Trish’s resignation would be catastrophic. He knows he has to talk to Walter, but what is he going to say?
Just at that moment his phone bleeps with a message from the hostel: “EMERGENCY. Roof leaking. Come ASAP.” The conversation with Walter will have to go on hold.
Have your say
- What can a chief executive do when a senior figure on the board is holding the organisation back?
- Do you use the number of complaints about your services as a prompt for action? How do you tend to respond?
Have your say on the Millcaster Tales forum.
Read all the previous episodes of Millcaster Tales.
Find out more about chief executive-trustee relations in our Governance section