Charity Commission apologies after rare intervention in arts sector charity

In February 2022, the Charity Commission announced that it had decided to investigate concerns about the Artist Benevolent Fund's governance and financial controls, following a high-profile public dispute about how charity trustees were appointed to and removed or retired from the charity's board. Disputes in arts sector charities are rare, and the number of cases where the Commission intervenes is very small.

The Commission has acknowledged that the dispute was difficult for all involved and that some parties remained unhappy. The regulator has said that it has learned lessons about how to handle similar cases and apologised for not including all past and present charity trustees in the early stages of its case.

The Commission found that ABF had been operating without sufficient financial controls and had an unclear governing document which ultimately contributed to the dispute. The Commission used its powers to appoint temporary charity trustees based on the member votes counted during ABF's 2022 AGM and ordered the charity to hold a new election. A new board was appointed by a valid election in January 2024.

The Commission encouraged all charities to learn from this case by taking steps to help avoid disputed charity trusteeship and to minimise the impact if significant disagreements arise. It has advised charity trustees to:

  • Check that their governing document is fit for purpose and not open to interpretation, particularly on how to appoint charity trustees and honorary roles.
  • Ensure good practice on governance essentials, such as running effective meetings and being clear how charity trustees are appointed or elected.
  • Ensure that decision-making and governance processes are transparent.

It has also advised charities to ensure regular rotation of charity trustees, encouraging them to follow the Charity Governance Code's best practice recommendation to rigorously review the appointment of any charity trustee who has served for nine years or more (see Principle 5. Board effectiveness). The current version of the Charity Governance Code is being updated.

If disagreements do occur, the Commission urges charity trustees not to lose sight of their charity’s best interests or the needs of its beneficiaries and recommends that mediation is sought.

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