Opinion: Keep executives off trustee boards

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief

Should the chief executive of a charity be a trustee? Here's another debate that will run and run, and on which the Charity Commission makes occasional exceptions to the prevailing rule.

When I was younger and knew the right answer to everything, I used to think chief executives should be trustees. Now I have fewer answers, I think they should not - a view to which I've become more firmly attached over time. Why do I take this line, when the governance of charities is increasingly converging with that of the for-profit sector? Here's why.

The primary job of the trustees, whatever their official title, is to safeguard the trusts of the charity. This means ensuring that it is operating within the charitable objects that are its legal basis and that it is creating benefit for those for whom it was intended. In many charities, this means having an eye on the long term and ensuring that it is fit to do the job for which it was founded, not only for the next financial year, but also for the next generation. Few charities can fix a social ill and fold up their tents in short order.

The chief executive, expected to have an eye on the long term, has to manage the charity in the short term. What suits the chief executive's managerial needs may, quite properly, not be aligned with the long-term interest of the charity. The trustees, with their eyes firmly on the far horizon, are an essential guide.

Trustees are in an inherently different legal position from the chief executive, since in most cases they may not benefit from the work of their charity, and in all cases must act without personal interest. Disinterested trusteeship is at the root of our understanding of charity. Corporate boards, however, have an inherent personal interest in the profitability of the company. There is a distinct difference between the roles of management and trusteeship. While all should march to the same drum, there should remain a small but appropriate distance between those roles.

Many charities have found it difficult to get rid of obstructive trustees, whatever their constitution says. If it became as hard to get rid of a chief executive, we'd be in trouble. Although there are bloody severances of chief executives in the charity sector, to institutionalise those divisions within the trustee body would be a price not worth paying, as the corporate sector makes clear. Charity chief executives being elected to their job by membership charities is a prospect too horrible to contemplate.

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