Professionals Good, Volunteers Bad?

Manipulating arm

Are senior volunteers really entirely to blame for every ill affecting Scouting Ireland?

Scouting Ireland’s woes continue apace, whilst Irish society looks on in as much disbelief as the members on the ground.

In the midst of all the drama, a rather large and fundamental question has not yet been posed. Namely, what role have senior professional staff played in getting Scouting Ireland into the mess we are presently in? 

This is an important question. The association is on the verge of making a raft of significant and irreversible changes that are going to fundamentally shift the entire structure of the association. Senior professionals will have not just a central role, but a pivotal one in this new structure. 

During this entire debacle, the implicit, if not always explicit narrative emulating from the media (briefed by ‘senior sources’ inside Scouting Ireland), government sources and others has been that volunteers are somehow incapable of doing the job and thus we need to be told what to do by professionals. One can see how this line of thinking suits some stakeholders, but it also fundamentally undermines a key tenet of Scouting, not to mention a whole host of other volunteer-led activities taking place in Irish society.

The Jillian Van Turnhout report, commissioned by Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone and designed to get to the bottom of governance issues in Scouting Ireland, used the term ‘management’ to conflate the roles of both the board of directors (presently the National Management Committee) and the Chief Executive Officer, as the most senior employee in the association and the person charged with managing day to day operations across a wide spectrum of activities and functions.

The entire Board of Directors will resign in light of the chronic dysfunction and poor governance prevalent nationally in Scouting for some time and highlighted in the Van Turnhout report.

The Chief Executive Officer attends Board Meetings and is also present at meetings of the ‘National Team for Policy Implementation & Coordination’ (NTPIC), which currently comprises the National Treasurer, National Secretary and CEO.

It’s not clear if NTPIC meetings happen presently and if they do, whether minutes are taken. Certainly, if one reads the resignation statement of Mark Blake, the Dublin Commissioner, it appears clear at any rate that lots of decisions are being made behind closed doors and not by the board. This feeds into the worrying narrative around poor governance, as set out in the Van Turnhout report.

The media focus and that of several commentators to date has been centred on ‘safeguarding’. This is important and it is right that board members implicated in potential breaches of protocols have stepped aside voluntarily whilst the matter is investigated.

However, governance has featured little in association narrative, despite the Minister referencing it in her statements. Yet, it is equally as important. It goes to the very heart of how Scouting Ireland has been managed. Indeed, Ms Van Turnhout opines in her report that it is the ‘deeply rooted dysfunction’ around management in Scouting Ireland at National level that has arguably created the space for breaches in procedures around safeguarding.

The very comprehensive and well assembled Management Bulletin circulated yesterday by the Interim Chair of the NMC Annette Byrne, references the Van Turnhout report and highlights actions arising from it, but does not broach the subject of accountability of professional staff.

The Van Turnhout report also highlights the ‘deeply rooted culture of mistrust between the board and staff’. Given the way the report is structured, it is evident which ‘staff’ this refers to (hint: its not the tea lady).

The Van Turnhout report refers to how different voices are treated differently around the board room table. Anyone with insights into how the NMC has operated for at least the past half decade will understand this reference. In reality, the NMC has become little more than a rubber-stamping body. Chums of those who control the resources get a hearing. Those who challenge or disagree get intimidated or sidelined, as appears clear from the parting statement of Derek Long, Provincial Commissioner for the Southern Province (and multiple other testimony received by theirishscouter over a lengthy period by several board members, former and current).

A sub-set of board members, together with senior staff in reality make most decisions and have done for some time. There is nothing inherently wrong with that in principle, but it would assume some sort of acquiescence on the part of the associations governing body (National Council) and the board. Members perceive the NMC to be in charge. The constitution supports the members assumption. There is no evidence of National Council determining otherwise at any stage. 

Minister Zappone also seems to be under the impression that the Scouting Ireland board of directors truly calls the shots. In fact this is simply not the case.

Let’s be clear. Any board that allows itself to be circumvented in such a manner deserves to be dissolved, notwithstanding the individual contributions of its members. Most directors in Scouting Ireland in any event have little idea of what a director is supposed to do. That’s not an excuse, but it does explain in part the dysfunction.

It also raises the question – is it accurate to lay the blame solely at the door of volunteers, when the association has a presumably suitably qualified, very well-paid and pretty well-resourced professional manager employed with the title ‘Chief Executive Officer’?

How conceivable is it that senior paid professionals in Scouting Ireland have somehow managed to sail through the past five years, without noticing or playing any part whatsoever as this culture of mistrust has developed?

If this was possible, it surely suggests a degree of complacency or even incompetence. If it is not possible, it logically suggests some element of culpability. Which one is it? 

Either way, the Chief Executive Officer should surely set out his position on this and explain why as Ms Van Turnhout puts it there is a ‘deep mistrust’ between the staff he is paid to manage and the volunteers he is paid to support. 

Other questions raised by Ms Turnhout could also use an answer: Why do board members feel that ‘staff are not adequately managed’. Why, six and a half years into the present CEO’s term is there still ‘no formal staff appraisal system in place’. What has the CEO done to try and heal this huge rift between staff and volunteers? It simply did not exist during the term of the previous CEO, so wherever it came from it happened on the present CEO’s watch.  

A very significant number of volunteers want to hear answers to the above questions.

Conflicts of interest (personal friendships going back many years – or ‘blind loyalty’ as Ms Van Turnhout describes the concept) between senior staff and some senior board members make it very hard to trust any statement emulating from the board – all the more so in the context of Mark Blakes revelations that the board doesn’t even see said statements. Have these conflicts of interest been declared at a board meeting? Have they been minuted? Is the Minister for Children aware of these? 

Do decisions made and statements issued in the boards name have any legal standing whatsoever when said actions are apparently not even being taken by the board?

There is frankly little chance of next weekends proposal being passed, when only part of the management equation as detailed in Ms Van Turnhouts report, is being held to account. The professional arm surely must shoulder at least some responsibility for the utter mess Scouting Ireland is now in. 

To say members in fairly significant quantities are furious at how volunteers are being painted as somehow unfit to run their own association, is to tend towards understatement. Quite how this undercurrent has not been picked up by the sub set of the board that is making decisions/ taking orders at present is remarkable. 

The ‘blind loyalty’ the Van Turnout report refers to is also on full display via social media with the usual suspects either harrumphing smugly or spewing venom and shrieking at anyone who doesn’t conform fully to the desired ‘professionals good, volunteers bad’ narrative. 

But moderates of all types – the overwhelming majority of scouters – are looking on in horror. They  are utterly confused, deeply hurt and very, very annoyed. They are likely to take this anger to the EGM, where it could well derail the proposals.

With the Minister turning funding on and off like a tap, depending on the content of tweets and newspaper articles and talk of state appointees to the board, some members are openly asking if the cost of state money is simply too high, if it means being permanently beholden to a legislator who honestly does not seem to have the full picture yet seems willing to make decisions without it. 

The vast bulk of professional staff, like the members of the association are helpless as they are flung around emotionally, whilst efforts to steady the ship continue to flounder. Employees worry about their jobs and mortgages. Members are concerned about the impact on young members, reputational damage and no doubt wondering about the high membership fees we pay and the poor value we are getting for them.

Theirishscouter believes adopting the new structure is the right way forward. Had we lobbied government in advance of the Charities Acts coming into law as effectively as we have briefed the Irish Times in recent months, then the picture would have been very different. The ‘Plan B’ option as set out in Ms Byrnes report is far from palatable. We are where we are.

Yes, it is far from perfect. Yes, it could in worst case shift the balance in the relationship between volunteers and elected leaders from equals to a sort of parent/child relationship; theoretically benign, but from one perspective rather patronising and in practice open to severe abuse – all without much remedy.

On the upside, the candidates for the new board all seem to be pretty solid people. Even the one or two with potential conflicts of interest or (as seen of late on social media) what could charitably be considered a severe lack of situational awareness, are far from being complete idiots. Most of the candidates are new faces at this level and all seem to bring something in terms of non-scouting experience. Perhaps one with real leadership capability will find themselves in the Chairperson’s role. One can but hope.

But the board won’t be running Scouting Ireland on a day to day basis. Whoever IS doing so, needs to be far more accountable than present arrangements have yielded. The on-going nightmare that the association is presently in will likely be viewed via rose-tinted glasses in the coming months and years, if the new structures and lines of accountability are not clear and unambiguous from the very start.

A new externally recruited CEO on a fixed term contract, with clearly defined job spec, clear KPI’s and proven track record needs to be hired, before the present incumbents term ends in a couple of months time.

The membership simply don’t trust the associations management – volunteer or professional. Bold, honest, courageous and sustainable moves will need to be made over a long period to restore that trust and undo the damage of the past half decade or so.

Professional management accountability needs to be addressed before next weekend. The stakes are too high and the role of senior staff in the new structure is too big for these proposals to get waved through on a promise. 

Nobody believes in promises any more. 

Robert Baden Powell and Fathers Tom and Ernest Farrell might all concur that from a Scouting perspective, that’s probably the most poignant revelation of all in recent months.

18 thoughts on “Professionals Good, Volunteers Bad?”

    1. Dermot, I had considered voting for you – you came across as thoughtful and eloquent. But your recent comments here and on Facebook are a major turn off. Attack the ball, not the man. Refute the arguments. “Sad”? Less Trump please. Show some substance.

      It’s not wrong to try and hold the CEO accountable. This mess has absolutely happened on his watch. It’s only right that questions are asked. If you know something that Garrett doesn’t, out with it. Enough secrecy. Give the members a chance to create an informed opinion.

      1. It is not wrong to hold the CEO to account. It is wrong to pursue a vendetta. Myself and Garrett had long telephone conversations today ..yes Dublin to Dubai actually Dubai to Dublin. I am sorry that you feel I have been unfair. I am in general a fair minded person but the dishonesty and self serving nature of some of the key protagonists has damaged Scouting Ireland hugely and that is something that concerns me hugely. In addition the staff are not able to defend themselves against the lies spread about them and yes I use the word lies.

      2. That is so unlike Redscout.

        Oh, wait. No it isn’t. I have been acquainted with Dermot since 1998 when we were party to discussions on the Constitution of SI (how different things might be of they had been accepted) and his form has ALWAYS been to play the (wo)man, flinging insults where facts might have been better.
        In fairness, from my limited exposure to him in his life outside of scouting, he does the same thing. All sweetness and light in the limelight, unopposed, but apparently reluctant to respond rationally (as opposed to emotionally, I’m not suggesting he is irrational) when challenged.
        He is a typical Irish party politician.

      3. Just want to clarify something regarding my last comment. Through a peculiarity of WordPress (I set up a Naas scouts WordPress blog in 2009) I posted under the name Naas Scouts. Some from our group have quite rightly pointed out that I do not speak for our group. Please note that the comments are my own. – Dave Power

  1. In general I am now a coward.
    A senior member of Scouting Ireland accosted me at our last EGM. (moderators.. note no names or positions given)
    Why because I stated one word in the comments to the last article by the TheIrishScouter.
    The word was ‘Excellent’.
    To my shame, I immadeally removed that comment.
    Following legal advice. I reposted that word
    Best wishes

  2. Im new to Scouting, joined, like so many others, to contribute to what I considered was a well run organisation, focused on child development, which I still believe the grass roots members are. I’m a senior mgr in a large multinational so the behaviour of senior mgt is no new thing to me, therefore it is with some authority that I say “shame on all of the management group , volunteer and paid ( I’m avoiding using the word professional) who have brought this organisation into disrepute”. Your self serving, blinkered, inward looking, clique like mgt of this wonderful organisation is a disgrace.

  3. The management structure of SI has been flawed from the outset. IT just got worse with age. When it is so difficult to get people to volunteer, you know something is rotten.
    When it isn’t normal practice of the NMC to produce a brief agreed statement after its meetings, there is a problem.
    When, following years of secrecy, the NMC seems to leak like a sieve, where it seems the minute book is open to a journalist but closed to the members, there is a problem.
    Once upon a time we had National Secretary’s Question time. It wasn’t great, but it was a whole load better than “Unnamed sources close to the board’s secret and unattributed press briefings”

    Change is needed but the change needs to be from within, needs to change the structure of HOW the NMC [and Nitpick and all the other impenetrable committees] functions.
    SI (the corporation) should not be subject to ministerial whim, jumping like a trained seal, or more likely, following the dangled carrot like a donkey.
    Maybe the Minister is more like an organ grinder and the monkey.

    Shame on SI for dancing. Except history tells us that grinding the organ electrocuted to monkey to make it dance. Shame on the organ grinder.

  4. Good Morning Dermot.

    I thought telephone conversations were private unless both parties agreed otherwise. Something for me to consider in the future. Also, we seem to have been on very different telephone calls!

    As you appear to have completely overlooked, the purpose of my call was quite simply to wish you well in this weekends elections to the board. I’ve always had the view that one can disagree stridently with ones opponents, but it does not have to be at the cost of civility. Nor should (in my view) an opposing viewpoint make one blind to the skillset and character of one’s adversary. I know that latter point appears somewhat out of line with present thinking in Scouting Ireland.

    Whilst on the various calls (we got cut off twice I think), I also expressed the opinion that the association presently feels divided to the same extent that legislators in the US Senate appear.

    Lots of people feel very strongly that they are in the right. Nobody is listening to the other viewpoint. Everyone seems determined to maximise influence of ‘their’ side and cares little for compromise or unity.

    We talked about culture in SI and your view that it is simply a CSI/SAI cultural difference that has never been resolved and not a conservative/liberal split as I would frame it. I think we both reflected that either way, uniting the association when people are so divided (the top 300 or 400 political types as opposed to every scouter in the land granted, but an influential bunch all the same), will be a challenge and one the new board will need to try and facilitate.

    I don’t recall describing anything as ‘unfair’.

    I did lightheartedly refer (and with tongue only partially in cheek) to the apparent personal vendetta that the CEO of Scouting Ireland has waged against various volunteers,including your’s truly, for instance by unilaterally overruling the agreed process and the then Communications Commissioner and leveraging his friendship with the then Chief Scout to unceremoniously dump me off the Scouting Ireland Chat Forum as it was, because I had the temerity to question the (as I saw it) politicisation of the CEO role under the present incumbents watch.

    In many ways, that led to the creation of ‘theIrishScouter’, because I dislike being bullied and free speech is enshrined in the Irish Constitution, even if we don’t buy into it in Scouting Ireland.

    And don’t worry Dermot, I have all the emails and letters to prove the above point. I also have similar emails and letters from other volunteers who got the same treatment – so I’m not making it up.

    The reason I raised the point that attracted the ire of both CEO (and Chief Scout at the time), was because I hold the view that one cannot enjoy the professionals immunity to criticism, whilst simultaneously seeking to take an active part in policy making. In the case of the latter, any office holder – volunteer or professional – should be open to questions and held to account for decisions made (or not made) under his or her watch. Its really quite simple.

    I’ve (genuinely) no axe to grind on a personal level against the CEO of Scouting Ireland or any office holder. I’ve known the CEO for years and I once had a great deal of personal respect for him. I’d be lying if I said I still had all of that respect, but I recognise a committed scouter, loyal friend (to his friends) and inspirational dad when I see one.

    I simply feel the present incumbent to the CEO role in Scouting Ireland is out of his league. We have missed too many opportunities (lobbying effectively for the Charities Acts – a key role of any CEO in a charity, is one), messed up too many initiatives (Vision 2020 is the obvious one – €200K of association funds wasted by some conservative measures) and we have an ASTONISHING degree of mistrust and bad blood between senior volunteers and senior professionals, which has developed in a period that roughly tallies with the present incumbents term.

    In the context of all this, I just find it very hard to follow that somehow, following a review by an external consultant on behalf of the government that firmly places blame for the associations current woes with ‘management’ (a conflation of the NMC and the CEO), the professional arm of that equation has neither issued a statement, nor expressed any sentiment, nor sought to acknowledge any role in, nor accept any, even partial, responsibility for the associations current predicament.

    Like you Dermot, I am a member of the association. I belong to a local Scout Group that pays (substantial) annual fees to Scouting Ireland (with not a lot of tangible services in return I might add). I believe I have a right, but more importantly a responsibility to question the disbursement of association funds and the development and application of policy.

    If the CEO took some responsibility for what has happened under his watch and used his remaining months in office to play a role in mending that gaping staff/volunteer chasm (for instance), he would have my full support in his attempts to do so. And I recognise (like most reasonable people do), no single person is completely responsible for the present mess.

    I hope that makes things clear. Perhaps the line from er ‘Dubai’ was a bit fuzzy.

    Good luck once again in the election this weekend.


  5. Shocked I am by Cian. He is wrong on several levels. In fact if the approach that my Group had proposed on the SI Constitution had been adopted we might not have some of the bureaucratic problems we have now. My memory is that he leaned towards the agreed document whereas I did not. I 100% supported the creation of the new Association – indeed i did so for about twenty years before it happened vocally at National Council. that.

    Perhaps he is right about my professional role – I cant judge. What I do know is that in good times and bad for my Party the public who know me have re-elected me at every election since I first joined the Council in 1993, yes in 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014. I value their support and appreciate their judgement. I hope that sufficient members of Scouting Ireland support me too on Saturday and I will respect and appreciate their judgement too.

    1. You may or may not have leaned towards the agreed document, Dermot, but the agreed document is a very long way away from what came out of the steering committee. I will rely on the memory of others here, but I have a feeling you spent a long time heaping the ills of SI upon that same “unelected” steering committee.
      At least until there were elections (and some coronations) and then it turns out that the elected officers in SI were unable to make a silk purse from the sows ear that is the current structure of SI, including the farcical “show trial” that is National Council with mandated voting etc.

      I’m not as old as Dermot. But I was an active, warranted scouter in both legacy associations for a time. A one man SI, before there ever was a Steering Committee.

      I am curious about all these level on which I am wrong, though.

      Am I wrong about SI management structure being flawed? Or does Dermot think it is perfect?
      But he says it would have been better if it were done differently, so it’s not that.

      Am I wrong that the NMC should be transparent in its business? Of course there are matters which should be dealt with in privacy (and not, e.g. leaked to the press) but that is the difference between an agreed statement and releasing the minutes. It’s what school boards do.
      Perhaps Dermot thinks the NMC should be secretive and concealing.

      Am I wrong in being critical of the leaking of private discussions to the press? Or should this be considered normal in the tradition of that stalwart of party politics, Mr Jim Hacker?

      Am I wrong that the changes to SI should come from within? Perhaps Dermot, since he is seeking election in SI, could clarify which external entities are entitled to dictate to SI how it is to organise itself.

      Am I wrong in being critical of a government minister who turns on and off funding to the largest youth organisation in the state depending on if the Minister likes or dislikes the leaks to the media? Perhaps the Politician is a little too close to this one to comment. But I’d like to hear how I’m wrong on this.

      Or maybe I’m wrong about organ-grinders of old electrocuting their monkeys to make them dance.

      Dermot says I am wrong on several levels. Which of the things I said are wrong?

      1. Hi all,
        If going to or voting at the EGM Please read this.
        Ill try keep it short.

        Tomorrow we are going to attend a very important meeting for the future of the whole organisation, a fact that appears to have been lost in many of the comments above. We are all frustrated at current affairs and are allowing ourselves to be dragged into the mire of attacking and defending each other and our actions. We are better than that. Tomorrow we are (probably) going to be asked to vote on a new constitution, one which we are going to be told is essential to the future of the organisation and the restoration of funding. There are many positives in this document, but buried in it is a clause which will make every one of our groups an individual registered Charity. This is absolutely contrary to the independent review commissioned by the Minister and conducted by JVT.
        Why is SI pushing this agenda?
        We have been told that the CRO has directed/insisted on it.
        Forget who said what as proof of this, unless it is in writing, it did not happen. But the CR has put it in writing that he is not pushing this agenda.
        Just look at the volunteer First Aid organisations (I don’t want to name them as I do not speak for them),
        They are not going down this road and they are similar organisations to us in terms of being voluntary and have a youth development ethos.

        We were then told that this was to bring us in line with the jurisdictional requirements of Northern Ireland. Again I ask why are the aforementioned organisations who are also 32 county organisations not going down this road ?.. because there is no requirement to do so.

        If you vote to accept this document your leaders will have to become Trustees of the individual charity that your group will become.

        Are you aware of the legal implications, responsibilities and culpability that comes with being a Trustee of a Charity?
        Are you prepared to accept this additional responsibility when there is no need to?
        Are you prepared to force this responsibility on your peers and children who are the future leaders of our organisation?

        Tomorrow there will be much to discuss. There will unfortunately be cross words, accusations and disagreement. There will probably be a few who try to shout down others. DONT BE INTIMIDATED ( by either side) remember what makes the most noise…..!

        If you are unsure or feel that you are ill informed….. Vote NO. ( we can always vote yes later on when the air has cleared and the good is separated from the rest of the document.

        If you object, please …..Vote NO.

        If you are unwilling to accept the legal responsibilities associated with voting yes… Vote NO.

        The opinions above are personal and I do not represent the opinions of any group. Sorry not as short as I hoped for.
        Thank you for reading.

  6. One thing sets Scouting apart from the majority of other Charites. Fundraising.
    Yes, groups and sections fundraise, bag pack, 12 Days, Race nights etc. but that fundraising is;
    a) A fairly small % of section or group revenue when you include direct payments for activities, membership fees etc

    b) Focussed primarily at delivering programme to members and extracting money from their parents/families

    Unlike e.g. the Red Cross, V De P or other charities that raise funds and distribute to non-members

    Most groups could probably (mostly) get by getting the same money from the same families using a different name for the cash extraction procedure.

    I think there are huge differences in the nature and detail of reporting depending on the size of a charity, bearing in mind factors such as turnover, number of professional staff etc. Few if any groups have paid employees. No doubt someone will be quick to tell me I’m wrong (maybe even supply the correct information) but my recollection is that for a group sized entity the reporting requirement is less onerous that currently required by SI.

    Trustees would have certain legal responsibilities, but are they any greater than the moral obligations members of the Group Council already shoulder?

    And finally my old reliable; I believe each local group ought to be an independent entity delivering scouting in the best way for its local community. The National entity is there to support and facilitate this, not to direct and dictate it.

    These are the things which, I believe, get lost in the whole “charity/charities” discussion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s