Friday, 22 July 2011

The Poetry Society: What Have We Learned

As I understand it:

1. That the Board - and most particularly the Director and the staff, according to the Chair - had done wonderfully well, working day and night, to get the Poetry Society its improved grants;

2. That the board thanked the Director and then put her into a position in which she had no option but to resign;

3. That the board did this because it considered she was under stress. They improved the stress by putting her in this position;

4. The underlying reason for this was unmanageable stress between the Director and the editor of Poetry Review;

5. That the editor wanted to change her job description in that she wanted to spend less time on the premises and to report directly to the board rather than to the Director. However the Director's job description included being the route of communication between the Board and the editor and that, furthermore, this responsibility was a legal obligation under the terms of her contract, and that to change this would mean a change in her job description, a change that required certain procedures that were, as I understand it, not followed;

6. That, according to the Chair, there wasn't a grievance procedure under way so no proper grievance procedure could be followed (was there then a grievance? and if not what's the problem?);

7. That the then Chair and Vice-Chair of the board informed the Board that there was no time to discuss this problem so asked to be entrusted with whatever action they took;

8. That the action they took was to accept the changes in job descriptions without due procedure and without the consent of the Director, who was simply presented with the changes, and then, naturally enough, resigned;

9. That the Director suggesting that this might be a case of constructive dismissal and therefore for legal action (she threatened legal action, they said) the Trustees ran to Harbottle & Lewis (by coincidence Rupert Murdoch's lawyers, in other words not the cheapest, who have so far charged them about £24K, and to Colman Getty, who have so far charged about £3K);

10. There was no threat in writing of legal action on the grounds of constructive dismissal and so far no action has been initiated;

11. That there were many organisations offering free advice on such matters to charitable bodies but the Trustees were not aware of these and they were not consulted;

12. That one reasonable course of action might have been to consult ACAS. The Trades Union person who advised this also thought that there was in fact an unusually strong case for constructive dismissal;

13. That in the meantime, at various times, the President, the Vice-President, the Finance Director, the Chair and a member of the Board had also resigned;

14. That in the meantime the Poetry Society had embargoed the Director, forbidding her from entering the premises, disconnecting her email etc, in other words they clearly worried about something;

15. That there was some exchange of emails between the then Chair and the previous Chair threatening the previous Chair with legal action for having had communication with the departed (or departing) Director. This was a perfectly proper course for the Director to take, however. That was before the then Chair resigned;

16. That according to the Finance Director, who has resigned but has worked out his term, the Poetry Society's finances are far from secure and there has been correspondence between the bank and the Society regarding overdraft facilities and the value of the Society building, which he found worrying;

17. That, though the Arts Council had increased the grant of the Society, that grant was conditional and that some of the regular grant has been held back until the Society fulfils those conditions;

18. That those conditions have not so far been fulfilled.

These were, I think, the main points to be discovered. If I am wrong, my apologies in advance. Then there was a vote of no confidence by poll that was carried by a majority of somewhere round 6:1.

It is important to stress that the Board, in anticipation of this, had announced that they had brought forward the date of their next meeting to September at which point they would resign, and would be replaced by a new Board that would be elected by due procedure, which was a legal requirement. They were, at the end of the meeting, pressed to accept three new people onto the board until that time. Four volunteered. It is, procedurally, up to the Board to select the three they want until September, and that this is what they will now proceed to do. At this point the meeting closed.

This left some questions unanswered, chiefly:

How the Trustees had got themselves into this situation when there were procedures they could have followed? They seem to have been in a huge hurry straight after the announcement of the Arts Council decisions, to the extent that they permitted matters to get to this stage. What pressure were they under?

Why they were ignorant of cheaper or free legal advice?

What is to happen to the Director who has said - so it was reported by certain members at the meeting - that she would be happy to return? The Board will say no more that they are in discussions with her, which suggests that it is the Board that is the obstacle.

If these discussions are not concluded satisfactorily within a suitable time frame and the Director is not back in her job does she still have a case for constructive dismissal, and if so, how much money will that cost the Society? Should it win? Should it lose? It may be that the Trustees are hoping that sufficient time will elapse between the resignation and a decision regarding the case for constructive dismissal on the Director's part, to nullify the possible case, since there is a certain period within which a case has to be started. It may be so.

What is to be done to ensure that procedures are clear and will be followed in the future?

What happens regarding the Arts Council and its conditions regarding the grant?

What is the likely state of the Poetry Society's finances in the immediate future?

My personal feeling - I know nothing of the position of the editor and have not been consulted or lobbied by anyone speaking for her, and in fact hold her in the highest regard as both editor and poet - is that the Director has been shockingly treated and in a manner that endangers the future of the Poetry Society. It may be the Editor has dissatisfactions but I know nothing of those. They have not been made public and she remains Editor, now in perpetuity.

I was asked to stand as an interim board member and, reluctantly, I agreed. In the event I was not called on, for which I am grateful. I wish the Poetry Society well, since the Society is not this or that Board of Trustees. I wish it better communication, better publicity, and better relations generally. It is vital that the Poetry Society survive, especially since one of the two institutional legs on which poetry stands has already been shot away. Which might be just one reason why the Arts Council too might want it to survive. Shooting itself in the foot has not however helped the National Poetry Society.

I reveal all this because it was declared an open meeting and because minutes will be circulated to Members. Nobody said any of this was confidential. I can't remember how many decades I have been a member, but certainly some.

Considering events in Norway today this affair seems pettier than ever in personal and institutional terms. How thoroughly depressing it all is.

Important update: I strongly advise those interested to read what Jane Holland has to say of the same meeting.


Angela France said...

Thank you for the clarity, George

Angela Topping said...

Thank you George. Your integrity is a beacon. I feel exactly the same as you do about it all. Thank you for being my proxy.

Jane Holland said...

Yes, thanks for this, George. Glad to see your post on the EGM is almost as long as mine. Hard to be pithier when there is just so much information and also ambiguity to convey.

Last night, I felt we had achieved something together, forcing the Board to resign and gaining a vote of No Confidence with such an overwhelming majority. But this morning, I am beginning to consider the outcome as deeply unsatisfactory. If mismanaged - and how can we intervene further, given the restraints on our power as a membership? - the potential legal battle behind the scenes could bankrupt and topple the Poetry Society. It has already cost somewhere in the region of £30,000 from our reserves.

To say that I am still angry and frustrated by all this is putting it mildly. My hope remains that we can find something positive out of all this and work together to protect the Society from future mismangaement and threats of this nature.

Jane Holland said...

Sorry, constraints not restraints. Limitation of power rather than handcuffs!

George S said...

The simple questions to the Trustees would have been:

How could you have cocked up a situation so completely and so quickly?

Why even begin to cock it up?

What are you going to do about it?

That leaves out masses of detail. The whirl and fury of meetings makes it hard to know at any one moment where things stand, but it all seemed to come to a rather sudden end. We should have pushed harder on Judith's reinstatement. That is my chief regret. And an apology from the Board for their treatment of her.

The sight of one particular member of the board grinning is one that will stay with me for a while.

Now I'll nip over to yours and see what you have said, Jane.

Poets Cornered said...

Ridiculous situation caused by the Board members. I've read several boilings-down of yesterday's events and it just seems strange that they could mismanage a situation so badly.

Thank you for this (and to Jane's excellent post as well.)


Sheenagh Pugh said...

I couldn't agree more, George. A sorry tale of incompetence and terrible staff relations. And yes, trivial beside what has happened in Norway; there are several Norwegian ships in my home port just now and flags at half mast make one very aware of that.

George S said...

No bad relationship between the staff, Sheenagh, just between the editor and the Director and, chiefly, the board and the staff. The staff are fully supportive of the the Director and have themselves ben poorly informed, or so I gather.

Nicky Phillips said...

Thank you for these clear and sensible words about a dreadful and sad situation and difficult meeting (which I attended).

Respect to the Poetry Society staff who have continued to work so professionally in such circumstances.

Penelope Shuttle said...

Thank you for the clarity of your summing-up, George, and for listing the vital questions that remain unanswered.

Silkworms Ink said...

George, well done for boiling something so complex and messy into such an understandable narrative - I think you've got the thrust and the atmosphere of the meeting down perfectly.

I personally feel that a certain amount of regeneration is called for to redeem the image of the Poetry Society in the eyes of its members and the public.

The staff of the society deserve to know that all the hard work and dedication that they show isn't going to be overshadowed by a sullied reputation that they had no part in.

Francesbookpage said...

Thank you for this balanced summary of what we found out at the meeting. I am still aghast at the way they sat there unashamed, holding their ground and chatting and laughing among themselves right to the end of the meeting - as if they felt they were in some way under seige, making a brave stand and being stout-hearted under pressure. For example, they still didn't appear to realise how appallling their lack of basic HR procedures is. Employment law is law. If you break it, can you be charged with something? I would have been AFRAID if I had been them.

Folderpoet said...

Thank you for this excellent summing-up. I have been following the developments from a distance, with great concern.

Things can only get better. Can't they? I do hope so.

George S said...

It strikes me that, if the Director is not to be reappointed on terms satisfactory both to the Board and herself, there is one decent and natural step that might be taken to improve the situation, but until it occurs to the people involved to take it, it is almost pointless asking for it. Nor will I ask for it.

Sometimes, unfortunately, it seems there are important people and less important people. The Poetry Society is a Members society in which everyone is equally important and the Trustees are so called because they are trusted.

Jacqueline Saphra said...

Thank you George, for being so clear and concise and for taking the time to put this down for those of us who couldn't get to the meeting.

Andy Ching said...

Fantastic post. Thank you very much.

Naomi Jaffa said...

I echo everyone else's thanks to you, George, for summarising so clearly and judiciously. A great help given I couldn't attend the meeting in person.

Naomi Jaffa said...

What I don’t understand at all is how a national organisation with ongoing substantial Arts Council core funding and charitable trust grants can have been allowed to operate for so long with a board of trustees so apparently unaware of the principles of ‘good governance’. I believe that ACE expects to attend Board meetings and receive minutes – and it would certainly seem that the internal staff ‘crisis’ resulted from a chronic and not acute situation. I.E. no surprise to anyone ‘in the know’. Gven the availability - and ACE support for - something like the Clore Leadership programme’s excellent Board and Chair & CEO development training courses - WHY was there no intervention to insist the situation be addressed before it escalated to such a pitch?

George S said...

My - possibly faulty - understanding of the situation, Naomi, is that meetings took place expressly without ACE presence.

Ashwednesday said...

As an outsider relying solely on accounts such as yours and others I have to ask: How did these Trustees become Trustees? Were they voted in by the membership? In which case that does not reflect well on the membership. Or were they appointed by a third party? In which case whose bad judgment has come home to roost? On the face of it a case of arrogant mismanagement by a bunch of incompetents. Appalling at a time of pressure when poetry needs friends not enemies that such poor governance has been revealed.

George S said...

Trustees are voted in by the Membership, Ashwednesday. As with all organisations, not everyone entitled to vote does vote, and those who vote may not know everything about the candidates. As far as we know there was no problem with this board until it came to one specific issue, when, for one reason or other, it acted in a reprehensible way.

But we vote in people all the time - and some of them do occasionally disappoint. You don't have to think very far back for public examples.

Martina Evans said...

Thanks so much for that post, George. I have already left a comment on Jane Holland's website - think it hasn't had approval yet.

In short, I don't think the director feels she can return in the present circumstances and I am really concerned about this.

George S said...

I was under the impression that reinstatement came first for her and the rest might follow, Martina.

Martina Evans said...

George, there is a real worry that she may not want to be reinstated after everything that's happened. But perhaps as you say, there is time for all this to happen and things aren't as urgent as I think.

Rereading your blog again this morning. Thanks for all that clarity.

Sheenagh Pugh said...

As I understand it, the trustees were in any case exceeding their remit; they are not there to run the business in quite the way they were doing, which should have been left to the professionals they employed?

George S said...

The Trustees, as I understand it, oversee and approve or disapprove the actions of the Director, and may agree policies they are free to put to the director. The Director has to have the backing of the board. But there are procedures that govern matters of disagreement. Those procedures were ignored.

Besides which, on a human level, the actions of the board were disgraceful. So it seems to me from all I have read and heard from the board itself, among others.

Pam said...

Thank you very much for this summary. It seems to me not only to be clarity itself but truthful, balance, fair. Has this link been sent to ACE?

It has the same ring of truth to it as the finance Director's statement.

Why then is more attention being given to the Board's fudge?

Yes, by comparison to world events this petty row
a. needn't have happened at all and b. could be put right ...

so there are still obstacles on the board? And these are????

Sheenagh Pugh said...

There's an incredibly perfunctory Guardian article on the books blog referencing this blogpost, but not putting up any kind of defence - see here