Conflict of interest

Ethics case studies
Dilemma:

The trustees of a small country house museum have been consulted about a plan for fracking on a nearby stretch of land.

There is no clear risk to the house or collection and the trustees decide not to oppose the fracking plan.

However one of the trustees owns the land that will be used for fracking.

A member of staff of the museum believes that there is a conflict of interest, and also believe that the museum is out of step with local opposition to fracking. They contact the ethics committee for advice.

Response:


The Code of Ethics states: “Avoid any private activity or pursuit of a personal interest that may conflict or be perceived to conflict with the public interest.” (para 3.1).

As such, the trustee in question must declare the conflict and remove themselves from any discussion on this matter.

This would also be in line with Charity Commission rules, which requires charities to rigorously manage and records conflicts of interest. While this should be clear to the board, the staff member may wish to speak to their management to remind them of their responsibilities on this issue.

If the trustee in question does participate in this discussion, there is more of a case to answer.

The question arises whether local planning matters are regularly discussed at board-level, and if there was anything unusual about the Board’s decision not to oppose in this instance.

If the decision appears to be out of character with the board’s normal approach, they may have acted unethically.

The member of staff has also mentioned that the museum is out of step with local opposition to fracking. Museums should work in partnership with local communities (para 1.6 of the code).

However, it is impossible for every decision taken by the museum to keep every member of the community – and even vocal community groups – content. There will also be supporters of both sides of an argument.

A failure to reflect the views of certain parts of the community is not in itself unethical. However, there may be an opportunity for the museum to act as a forum for further debate on this issue by programming events that allow different sides of the argument to be heard.

Links and downloads

Code of Ethics

Charity Commission trustee guidelines

Charity Commission guidelines on conflicts of interest (pdf)

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