Dispute resolution for community boards

When things go wrong for community group boards, sometimes they go really wrong. So where do you go when there is a dispute within a board?

In cases involving criminal matters such as fraud, the most obvious step is to go to the police. But in many cases of board dispute, the situation is not so clear cut. What do you do if you suspect nepotism? Or incompetence? Or deception? Or a breach of the rules/constitution/objects?

Use your vote

If you are on the right side of the allegations (i.e. you are the one with the concern), the most obvious remedy is to call a special meeting (or wait for the AGM) and vote the wrong-doer/s out. However, as many board members know, this is not always possible - as they say in politics, you need the numbers.

You should also keep in mind that this can be an extremely public, divisive and destructive option to take. It is probably better to consider this a last resort and look at your other options first.

Consult the rules and policies

Your first step should be to consult your organisation's rules (or constitution or objects) to see if there is a mechanism identified for resolving disputes.

Most organisations will also have a policy for resolution of disputes (if you don't have one check out our policy templates to see if there is one you can adapt and adopt.) This can also provide guidance about how a dispute should be handled within your organisation.

What legal options do we have?

If you don't have a dispute resolution rule or policy, or if using that mechanism fails, there are still a few options open to you, although the state is hesitant to become closely involved in the workings of the not-for-profit sector.

The website of Consumer Affairs Victoria, for example, states unequivocally that:

"The rules of an incorporated association constitute the terms of a contract between the association and its members. A breach of the rules is a civil matter to be resolved by the parties. Consumer Affairs Victoria does not generally intervene in disputes under the rules."

Most state agencies concerned with not-for-profit organisations have similar warnings. This can leave you with limited options if you feel that there is a very real problem with your board and/or a member within it.

If things are really serious, you might want to consider consulting a lawyer, however this can be a very expensive (and extremely divisive) option.

For organisations on the East Coast there is a free alternative - Queensland, NSW, the ACT and Victoria all have an official dispute resolution service.

The Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria, for example, can help resolve:

  • Procedural issues, such as the way elections were conducted or the origin and use of funding.
  • Problems involving rules, such as disputes involving the use of or interpretation of internal rules.
  • Ideological problems such as different groups wanting to take the organisation in different directions.
  • Access to facilities, access to documents.
  • Distribution of duties, sharing workloads; adherence to rosters.
  • Discrimination, favouritism and inappropriate behaviour.
  • Personality clashes between members.
  • Disciplinary measures, expulsion, and many more.

In other states, the equivalents are:

In all other states you will have to pay for your mediation.

What if none of this works?

If, after considering all of these options, there is still no resolution to the problem with your board or committee, it is time to consider your own place on the board.

You will need to decide:

  • If you want to continue to plug away at trying to fix the problem (perhaps by working to "get the numbers" to make some changes to the board membership), or
  • If you will live with the situation as it stands, or
  • If you will leave the board.