Monday, December 5, 2011

The General Assembly

Not sure where this post goes but it is something that I have been musing and I think it fits best under governance.  Recently postings on the UK Unitarians Facebook group have provoked my thoughts. There have been some describing the General Assembly (GA) as the national centre and about the GA trustees (EC) wanting to influence congregations.

The GA is the national Unitarian organisation  for congregations, fellowships, societies and ministers and perhaps those who choose to be Associate Members.  However there is a difference between being the national organisation and being the centre. There have also been comments about how there are (may be?) many congregations that do not relate to/are unaffected by what the GA does.  If this is the case then can the GA actually be described as a centre, at least for these congregations?

Congregations are made up of individual people and they do not belong to the GA so perhaps there is also a problem with connections between the GA and individual Unitarians.

So is the role of the GA to be the national centre? The GA's constitution states the purpose of the GA in its Object

To promote a free and inquiring religion through the worship of God and the celebration of life; the service of humanity and respect for all creation; and the upholding of the liberal Christian tradition. 

To this end, the Assembly may: 

1. Encourage and unite in fellowship bodies which uphold the religious liberty of their members, unconstrained by the imposition of creeds; 

2. Affirm the liberal religious heritage and learn from the spiritual, cultural and intellectual insights of all humanity; 

3. Act where necessary as the successor to the British and Foreign Unitarian Association (including the formation and assistance of Congregations; the publication and circulation of biblical, theological, scientific and literary knowledge related to Unitarian Christianity; ....) and National Conference of Unitarian, Liberal Christian, Free Christian, Presbyterian and other Non-Subscribing or Kindred Congregations (To consult, and when considered advisable to take action, on matters affecting the well-being and interests of the Congregations and Societies on the Roll of the Conference, as by directing attention, suggesting plans, organising expressions of opinion, raising funds to carry out the foregoing objects) ... 

4. Do all other such lawful things as are incidental to the attainment of the above Object. 

I have added in the bits in brackets to say what these roles are.

(Incidentally the EC's November meeting notes say, 'Constitutional Review Group. A report was received from the group. No constitutional changes were recommended.'  Which seems a real shame because I don't think that the Object is at all clear; I don't think it covers everything that the GA does or that it aspires to do; and it does not identify clearly who the charity's beneficiaries are.)

It seems to me that reading this the GA's main roles are to speak to the outside world and to act as a service organisation for local congregations.  These roles may be seen as central roles but they are not the same as a national body which controls its local, affiliated bodies like some national charities. This is a different model and therefore different approaches and attitudes are needed. Another concern, as I have written before, is that the new priorities are very inward looking. For the first time in my memory (in Unitarian terms this is relatively short) there is no priority around social action.

The second point is about whether the GA should be influencing congregations and fellowships.  As a service organisation it should be providing advice and guidance.  It should be organising events to identify and promote good practice.  They also have a significant input into the selection and training of ministers which might be seen to be a significant influence. So the GA can and does influence. 

What further ability to influence would they seek? And who wants to do this?  The item prompting this posting came from an EC member - so is it the EC which seeks to have more influence of local congregations and fellowships or just one EC member?  As an active member of a local congregation there are plenty of people trying to influence things locally, which is all well and good because they are within our community.  I guess we would say that we do not want the GA influencing what we do rather we would like them to support us in making our choices and taking actions.

I think that there may be some significant mismatches - between the GA's Object and what they do; and between what they think their role is and what we locally think their role is. My view is that it is better to reduce such mismatches so that there is greater clarity and everyone has a similar understanding about what the GA does.  

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Glass half-full or glass half-empty

At the beginning of the Facebook discussion as described two posts ago the EC member wrote - in corrected form

Essentially, we've tried to focus our very limited numbers of people and funds on the few top priorities ...

If I read the accounts correctly the General Assembly's income for the year 2009/10 was over £650,00. There are some 11 staff - not all full-time.  When I did a count a year or two ago of the number of volunteers in the commissions and panels I counted over 100.  These are people with expertise in spiritual matters as well as business matters such as finance, fundraising, PR, marketing, strategic development, governance, report writing, communications, web-design, etc.  There are other skills there too such as artistic, educational, social policy and working with young people. This is only those people directly volunteering for the General Assembly and does not include those involved with national societies let alone the districts or local congregations and fellowships.

In my world we are resource rich. What a wealth of resources - human and otherwise.  What we also have is an enormous amount of good will from most Unitarians in the UK and elsewhere in the world. 

But if we keep getting told that we are poor and have limited resources we will begin to believe it. Perhaps if you think you are resource poor then there is no expectation that much can be achieved.  I would dearly love someone on the EC to invite us to celebrate how rich we are as a faith community and then to expect great things. 

Public benefit

All charities need to pass the public benefit test. Here's what the Charity Commission says about the needs to report on public benefit

For smaller charities, below the audit threshold**, trustees are required to include a brief summary in their Trustees’ Annual Report of the main activities undertaken in order to carry out the charity’s aims for the public benefit. Trustees can, of course, provide fuller public benefit statements if they wish.

For larger charities, above the audit threshold**, trustees are required to provide a fuller explanation in their Trustees’ Annual Report of the significant activities undertaken in order to carry out the charity’s aims for the public benefit, as well as their aims and strategies. They are required to explain the charity’s achievements, measured by reference to the charity’s aims and to the objectives set by the trustees. It is up to the charity’s trustees to decide how much detail they want to provide to clearly illustrate what their charity has done in the reporting year to meet the requirement; the Commission will not be prescriptive about the number of words or pages needed. But a charity that said nothing on public benefit in its Trustees’ Annual Report, or produced only the briefest statement with no detail, would be in breach of the public benefit reporting requirement.

**For charities with accounting periods ending on or after 1 April 2009, an audit is required when a charity’s gross income in the year exceeds £500,000, or where income exceeds £250,000 and the aggregate value of its assets exceeds £3.26 million.

It is interesting times for we Unitarians as we now have three basic priorities - (1) local leadership; (2) ministry; and (3) visibility. It all seems a bit too much about us and no-one else.  The fact that our faith and social action work comes under visibility gives very much the wrong impression - we are doing it to make ourselves visible rather than because it is intrinsically right.

I know that the Quakers are significantly bigger than us but I was looking longingly at their annual report for last year - their objectives are around these areas

  • Strengthening our spiritual roots 
  • Speaking out in the world 
  • Peace 
  • Sustainability 
  • Strengthening local communities 
  • Crime, community and justice 
  • Using our resources well
It seems so outward looking compared to ours and it has an objective around the use of resources which fills my heart with joy!  I have long argued that it is a spiritual imperative to make the best use of all our resources.

Our new priorities do not serve us well.  I think that if we just focus on these issues then we will find it difficult to answer in more than a few words what benefit we provide to the public.  Let's hope that what we actually do is more impressive than what we say we are going to do.

Trustees and beneficiaries

I am so grateful for the Facebook discussion, part of which is outlined in the post below - I needed some inspiration for posts to this blog. This morning I have been thinking about the relationship between trustees and their beneficiaries.

Trustees are in a position of trust or responsibility for the benefit of another. In the case of the General Assembly's (GA) Executive Committee members (trustees) they have the responsibility to govern the GA for the benefit of its beneficiaries.

The GA's beneficiaries are not too clearly identified in the GA object.  Whilst it mentions congregations and societies the membership of the General Assembly is much wider than that. Members include full (congregations, fellowships, societies, minister, lay leaders, trustees), associate and honorary GA members. 

As a charity the GA must also have a broader benefit which is called 'public benefit'.  I will discuss this in a later post.

I will now digress to discuss an issue that I came across after I had left an organisation whose chair I had been for many years.  I was asked to stop being a trustee as I was doing some paid research for them, as they could find no-one else to do it.  It was a strange position to be in but interesting.  They were deciding to significantly change their object.  I had some conversations about this and asked who they had discussed this with.  They had asked staff and volunteers.  I asked if they thought that these were the people to whom they were accountable. 

I suggested that as a charity their consultation should have been with their beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries. I had no say but felt that I needed to put the case for the beneficiaries as I hoped that it had been their needs which had driven the organisation's development whilst I was on the board. 

We need to ensure that staff and volunteers are well treated and supported in their work but it is not their wishes that should drive developments.  It the needs of the beneficiaries. Sometimes, hopefully often, staff and volunteers should know the needs of their beneficiaries and if they don't they can be tasked to ask. 

To understand the needs of your beneficiaries it is helpful to be on good terms with them, to listen to what they say and not to misrepresent what they have said.  It would be interesting to ask our GA trustees who they believe their beneficiaries are and what values underpin their dealings with these beneficiaries.