Peter Stanford: Chairs need a balance of passion and practical skill

Too much passion can make you unrealistic about what the charity can achieve, while too much management means you might have no overarching vision, says our columnist

Peter Stanford, chair of Aspire
Peter Stanford, chair of Aspire

There is a well-trodden path in big enterprises that leads effortlessly from working there day-to-day to becoming chair.

In the banking industry, or in our leading high-street retailers, for instance, chairs tend to be drawn from former (and, in some cases, still active) practitioners. Lloyds TSB's Sir Victor Blank, who retired as chairman in 2009, came from a background in high finance, as did his successor, Sir Win Bischoff. Meanwhile, over at Marks & Spencer, Sir Stuart Rose has gone from chief executive to executive chairman to chairman.

I suppose such continuity should make us feel secure - and, indeed, it once did that to such an extent that outside regulation was allowed to melt away. But in the wake of all that has happened of late in the world of banking, such a cosy circle is seen by some as part of the problem.

In the third sector, we do tend to do things differently. Very few chief executives, to my knowledge, go on to become chairs - at least, not of the organisations they work for. The only one I can recall is James Strachan, who until 2002 was chief executive of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf (now Action on Hearing Loss), and thereafter became its chair. And that move prompted a few raised eyebrows at the time.

Genius or folly?

Instead, charity chairs often come from left-field - people with professional expertise, certainly, but not in areas that make them obvious candidates. Some will have had no particular contact with the third sector at all.

It is the genius - or perhaps the folly - of trustees to make the connection between that person's professional world and the charity's needs, and then offer them the job. When it works, which it often does, it can inject new energy and perspective. At a lunch for charity chairs recently, every one of us, we discovered, was a left-field appointment.

Except me. I was one of those chairs who emerged from within, by default, having served my time on various internal boards. I was the compromise name the trustees could agree on after they had split down the middle over two more eminent candidates.

There is another component in the process of recruiting chairs from outside. Finding the right person depends on identifying someone who might not know the charity, or indeed the charity world, inside out, but who feels passionate about the cause and the challenge. The successful chair brings management expertise and passion to the organisation.

I am sure Sir Victor or Sir Win or Sir Stuart would say that they are passionate about what they do. But the difference is that they get paid to be passionate. Charity chairs do not. It is a purer, more altruistic passion.

Balancing passion and management expertise can be tough. Too much passion can make you unrealistic about what the charity can achieve. On the other hand, if there is too much management, you might have no overarching vision - just a nuts-and-bolts attention to detail.

Twenty years as chair

Moreover, it can take time for outsiders, even when keen, to adjust to the peculiarities of the third sector. We have our own odd ways of doing things. Take mergers, for example. In the commercial world, if you feel there is a compatibility between two businesses that will deliver a better product at a lower cost, you start off by making a friendly approach. If it is rebuffed, then you can launch a hostile takeover bid. With charity mergers, there is no mechanism to overcome a simple refusal from the other party to engage, even if the benefits are blindingly obvious. I have seen this drive recruits from the for-profit arena mad with frustration.

If this sounds like a mini-memoir, that might be because 2011 marks my 20th anniversary as a charity chair. I would not have missed it for the world - for all the stresses, strains, disappointments and sheer frustration in those two decades, it is, I have discovered, the very best of jobs.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, chair of Aspire and director of the Longford Trust

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