Charity trustees, staff and volunteers sometimes don’t see eye to eye. Board members often have big personalities; they are used to being in charge and their drive helps get things done, but it can also lead to conflict.

An informal conversation will usually stop a difficult situation from escalating into a crisis. But when relationships break down, problems fester and disagreements can become serious. An organisation’s effectiveness will be hampered and good people may leave in frustration. This creates instability and can see spell major problems for the future.

SCVO’s Information Service gets regular enquiries of the nature I have just described. Until recently we have tried to help people over the phone, refer them to local support networks or where appropriate to our pro-bono legal service.

“Mediators make sure both parties get a chance to state their case, listen to each other and work through what is important to them”

But we wanted to do more, so we spoke to one of our members, the Scottish Mediation Network (SMN), about developing a pro-bono mediation service just for the third sector. Over the last few months, the marvellous May Milward of SMN has worked with mediators to create a prototype. The result is that third sector organisations can now access up to two hours of free advice over the phone. But that’s not all – if callers meet certain criteria, they can be matched with a qualified mediator.

So what is mediation? It’s where an independent third party helps people who are in disagreement to agree on mutually acceptable solution. The mediator helps the parties to talk through issues and possible options, with a view to settling their dispute.

Outstanding Negotiation Outcome

A mediator does not take sides or make judgements. Instead they make sure that both parties get a chance to state their case, listen to each other and work through what is important to them.

Mediation can only take place if both parties agree firstly that they want to find a solution. Mediation is a private and confidential process, and the costs are usually shared by the parties in dispute.

We’re really looking forward to working with SMN to provide this extra help to the sector. We’re going to work closely with them to identify recurring issues or common experiences to help us develop further toolkits and information.

If you’re reading this and involved in an organisation where trouble is brewing, here’s a couple of tips to remember:

  1. A good induction is so important for staff and board members. Everyone should know their roles and responsibilities and what’s expected of them. Consider drawing up a code of conduct.
  2. Problems with relationships between staff can and do occur. Board members may have no experience of people management. That’s why it’s good to set out a comprehensive management and supervision policy, and have clear channels of communication between board and staff.
  3. All trustees are responsible for keeping the overall organisation strategy in mind. If there are internal problems, they should help people to work together and settle any differences. Mutual respect is vital, as is the willingness to talk through any issues.

If all else fails and you need some outside help, remember that you can now contact the Scottish Mediation Helpline on 0131 556 8118.

You’re not alone – we’ve already had our first referral!