Mike Reardon, chair of Positive East

Chairing a charity can be harder than being on the board of a multi-million pound business, says the HIV charity's chair

Mike Reardon
Mike Reardon

When Mike Reardon took an early retirement in 2007 after 30 years in the pharmaceutical industry, he decided to take on a handful of board-level roles in the public, private and voluntary sectors.

Reardon became a board member at the primary care trust Tower Hamlets NHS Community Health Services and the non-executive chair of both the pharmaceutical firm Vidant Pharma and the consultancy business Xiota Retail. But he says it was less difficult to find a board-level role at a charity than these positions.

"Not surprisingly, the charity sector was the easiest to get into," he says.

"I suppose that is because charities don't pay, and many of them are crying out for expertise."

Reardon joined the HIV charity Positive East as a trustee in 2008 and was appointed as its chair last month, having been its interim chair since June 2010.

He says he was attracted to the charity after noticing its advert for trustees in a national newspaper. He saw it was run in a way that chimed with his experiences in business.

"I came to the charity from a commercial background, having been on the board of a multi-million-pound company," he says. "I looked into the charity and what impressed me was that it was financially sound and had a good business plan. It has always looked for a diversity of funding, approaching foundations and trusts rather than being too dependent on statutory sources.

"Most of the other charities that I looked into did not have a business plan. They might have been doing a really good job on the ground, but it was somewhat opportunistic. Those charities have really got a problem now, because their public funding has dried up and they are struggling to find funding elsewhere."

Reardon, who is also chair of the charity Bridge Mental Health, says he chose to get involved with healthcare causes because of his experience in the pharmaceutical industry.

"Mental health and HIV are not the most obvious health causes to get involved in, and they are much more difficult to raise funds for than some other causes, such as cancer," he says. "But I had worked with both causes during my career: when I was a country manager for Africa at GlaxoSmithKline during the 1980s, I was seeing HIV-infected people dying. That was a very difficult experience."

Reardon says he was also attracted to Positive East because, although some beneficiaries had a place on the board, they did not constitute the majority. "Without naming charities, I have seen cases where the majority of trustees would be people who were directly affected by the charity's work, or had family members who would be," he says.

"When they bid for public funding, they couldn't understand why commissioners did not realise how important their work was.

"You need a businesslike set of eyes to prove a charity's outcomes to commissioners. Beneficiaries are not necessarily the best-equipped group to do that."

He says that, although he found it a lot easier to be appointed to a board in a charity than in other sectors, the role itself has in some ways been more of a challenge.

"At a charity, you are completely reliant on the goodwill of the trustees," he says. "Nobody is paid to be there - they are there only because they are committed to what you're doing and enthusiastic about the organisation's objectives. At a company, there is a contractual obligation to deliver a result."

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