After three years of active campaigning and continued pressure from Unite the union representatives and members, the governance of the world’s oldest animal charity, the Royal Society for the Prevention to Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) has finally been overhauled and fully modernised.

The recent history of the RSPCA has seen a lack of financial stability, an inability to hold on to a chief executive for any length of time, numerous restructures and a culture of bullying and harassment take hold.

According to Unite, overseeing all of this has been an ineffective and divisive board of up to 28 trustees, some of whom have at times appeared more interested in themselves than in the charity they were supposed to be leading.

In January of 2016, Unite undertook an extensive survey of its membership within the RSPCA, enquiring about morale, professional development, pay and governance. At that time, only 4 per cent agreed with the statement: ‘Society Trustees (Council Members) currently provide effective leadership’.

The subsequent two years saw Unite actively campaign for change, a move that was met with fierce resistance from a small number of trustees, with various proposals, motions and resolutions being blocked at Annual General Meetings. In October of 2018, the union branch was invited to a meeting with the Charity Commission. It was clear that the Commission had concerns over the governance of the RSPCA, especially regarding cases where there was a clear conflict of interest, mirroring those that has been raised by the union branch and its members.

With respect to the governance at the RSPCA, Unite wished to see the following changes:

  • Board Restructuring: The size of the average charity board is 12 members. The RSPCA has 28. Reduce the board from 28 elected members to 9 nationally elected trustees plus 3 co-opted trustees. Also, if you are a branch trustee when elected to national council, you will need to step down as a branch trustee to remove any potential conflict of interest.
  • Terms of Office: There is currently no time limit on how long a national trustee can remain on council. There needs to be a limit of three terms of three years with one possible extension in exceptional circumstances.
  • Quality: The board and its committees should have the appropriate balance of skills, experience, independence and knowledge of the charitable and business sectors to enable them to discharge their respective duties and responsibilities effectively.

In addition, Unite made no secret that in order to effectively tackle the negative behaviours that exist in the RSPCA, there needs to be effective change within the board of trustees as collectively, they did not possess the skill set required to turn the organisation around.

At the Society’s 190th annual general meeting that was held in London over the weekend, those changes were condensed into three separate rule amendment resolutions, voted upon and successfully passed (by over 90 per cent) of the charity’s membership. The results reflected the biggest shift in the charity’s governance in almost 50 years.

Commenting Joe Murphy Unite RSPCA senior workplace representative said: “This is a big step forward for the charity and for the members who are so passionate about the animal welfare work they are committed to. For years, the organisation has been hindered by dated and clumsy governance structures that have allowed a small dominant number of individual trustees to oppose positive and progressive strategic change; to interfere directly in operational and managerial decisions to promote their own agendas; to allow dubious employment and accommodation arrangements for family and friends; to run up extortionate expenses year after year; and to be in complete denial of the culture of bullying and harassment that has fostered under their collective weak leadership.

“The changes that have been voted through at this year’s AGM have been the consequence of continued and sustained campaigning from Unite’s workplace representatives and its members within the RSPCA, often in the face of open hostility from some trustees. Everything that the union has been asking for was agreed, meaning that the RSPCA will be in a much better place to face the enormous challenges that exist in the charitable sector and move towards a more secure future for staff.”

For more information please contact Alex Flynn Unite head of media and campaigns on 020 3371 2066 or 07967 665869

Notes to editors:

  • Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest union with members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.