Peter Stanford: Don't defer to business, trust in your own ability

Although we can learn from the private sector, we must not regard charities as second-rate or too emotional, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Now here's a tricky thought that might make me sound as if my head is firmly buried in the sand. Over the past 25 years, I've watched as our sector has grown and blossomed, in part through greater involvement with government, but also because it has taken lessons in professionalism from the private sector. So far, so good. And like a lot of other trustees, when a chair has told me that a senior business figure has agreed to join our board, I have nodded my assent happily; and I have been pleased with the decision afterwards.

Most of the time. And it is those occasions when it doesn't work out that have caused me to reflect. My worry is that the relationship between charities and businesspeople might have become so close as to risk being one-sided. They tell us what to do and we are so in awe of their "real-world" experience that we jump - as if we don't work in the real world.

I recently found myself in a position where, at board level, we had a relatively simple problem that, in essence, involved us putting into words, and into an overall framework, policies that we had instinctively been developing in the charity's day-to-day work for years.

All we needed was the confidence to get on with it, but instead of trusting our own ability, we had grown so used to calling in the experts from the world of business that we sought someone to hold our hand who had that most precious of gifts - vast private sector expertise.

On this occasion, however, it wasn't a good fit, or a happy experience. It was as if we were talking different languages. The translation from the modest charity environment to the huge corporate stage left us feeling like a bunch of country hicks at a Notting Hill drinks party.

Perhaps we could have got over that with time and effort, but the biggest problem was the assumption that charities and private businesses, big and small, are essentially the same. It is, in some respects, the same logic that underpins the whole social enterprise experiment in our world, but - and forgive me if this is blindingly obvious to everyone else - we are not the same. Boards of trustees, for example, are not all about the bottom line. And their core inspiration, when it comes to a really tough decision, is not dictated by balance sheets, commercial advantage, bonuses or policy documents, but rather by social justice.

There are, of course, plenty of overlaps, lots to learn and an abundance of benefits, but we can't just brush the differences under the carpet, as I feel we do now. We need to stop seeing ourselves as second-rate, soft or too emotional when it comes to making the big decisions.

It might all be down to just one bad experience, but we have to learn from those bad experiences and, if we manage to do that, the partnership between charities and business could even get more fruitful - for both sides. Which is how it is meant to be.

Peter Stanford is a journalist, was a charity chair for 20 years and is now a trustee of Circles UK

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