Peter Stanford: The dangers of dominant trustees

Trustees get what they want in many ways - some more serious than others, says our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Trustees try to get what they want in a number of ways - some more serious than others. The words "dominant trustee" jumped out at me from a report on the Charity Commission's recent inquiry into the Essex-based Tom Amos Charity. In this case, the dominance in question was numerical: a sole trustee had guided affairs until the commission intervened, and then appointed his son to join him on the board.

But can trustees be dominant in other ways, such as talking too much in trustee meetings and stopping others having their say? Mea culpa, I'm afraid. My only excuse is that I have a nervous tic that responds to any kind of silence by wanting to fill it. But I'm confronting my demons, as they say.

Moving up the scale of sins of dominance, the next one that occurs to me is being a trustee who insists on having his or her own way. The model here is the pre-Barack Obama US attitude to the UN Security Council. When the US didn't like what everyone else wanted, it simply vetoed it. If I examine my conscience, I can't rule out being tempted to do this. I can even remember occasions when I may have thought "over my dead body" about certain proposals - but I don't think I've ever verbalised it.

Instead, the right course is to try to persuade the other people to understand your point of view - and not by talking them into submission. If that doesn't work, you must remind yourself of the golden rule of trusteeship: the cause is more important than any individual, including you. One of the odd things about growing older is that you no longer see things in such a polarised, right-or-wrong way. As your hair goes grey, you begin to see the shades of grey in arguments.

And what about dominance in the form of a bullying trustee? I've known a few in my time and, without exception, they damage the charities they seek to serve. The only way to stop this is for the rest of the panel to stop playing victim and get rid of the bully. A painful task, but who said being a trustee was easy?

- Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, chairman of Aspire and director of the Frank Longford Charitable Trust

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