Peter Stanford: It's all too easy to condemn Leonard Cheshire trustees

Agreeing to take cash from a tobacco firm must have been tough, argues our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Children today are very anxious to grow up. It is tempting to blame external pressures on them - advertising, the celebrity culture and so on - but a good deal of that rush to adulthood has always been part and parcel of the human condition. We are geared towards it, though simultaneously a part of us also resists it.

Many yardsticks are used to measure and mark the passage from childhood's freedoms to adulthood's responsibilities, but the clearest indication, to my mind, is when we start realising that our actions have consequences.

That is the mark of an adult and, however old we are, most of us struggle to dodge that reality. It can be tough, for example, when sitting round a trustees' table, to be wholly adult, to accept that our actions really can potentially have far-reaching consequences. There is, after all, often something slightly unreal about the whole set-up.

We are usually gathered there alongside members of our charity's senior management team. The paid employees - as opposed to us unpaid volunteer trustees - live and breathe the charity 24/7. They pull its strings, as it were, and much of our attention often focuses on making sure we are scrutinising them sufficiently so that their actions don't have terrible consequences.

Yet, insulated as we can be, by inclination and by circumstances, from the burden of responsibility we trustees carry alone, I think it is necessary from time to time to remind ourselves of it. We are not there simply for our advice, expertise or cheerleading. We are not there only to be consulted, to encourage and to warn, like the constitutional monarch in Walter Bagehot's 1867 governance bible, The English Constitution. We are also the final court of judgement for what can be finely balanced, extremely tricky and potentially catastrophic decision-making. That's very adult indeed.

So my sympathies, at present, are with the trustees of Leonard Cheshire Disability, who have carried out their duty, as laid down by the Charity Commission, and made what must have been an agonising decision about whether to accept a large donation from the world's third biggest tobacco company (the fact that the actual sum has not, at the time of writing, been disclosed reveals quite how tough this one was).

JTI is the owner of Silk Cut, Benson & Hedges and Camel, which I tried to smoke when I was 18 to prove I was not only an adult, but cool too. Thankfully, I failed ever to succeed in smoking one of them without spluttering.

We all know what tough going fundraising is right now; we know how our corporate donors have tightened the purse strings and how much additional need there is out there as the coalition government has imposed its swingeing cuts even as it talks up the big society, which - roughly translated - seems to mean they want us to make up the shortfall.

So willing donors are very welcome; but does it matter who they are? Even if the money is ill-gotten, the argument goes, there is a neat justice in 'recycling' it for good. Ah, if only it were that simple. Recycle a drug baron's money for good and you are creating more harm by allowing him or her to carry on plying their destructive trade.

JTI isn't a drug baron, of course, although to read some of the posts on websites about this decision by Leonard Cheshire Disability's trustees - one correspondent talks about supping with the devil - you might be tempted to think it is.

Selling tobacco is legal. So a balance has to be struck between accepting a legitimate donation from a legitimate company that will benefit many people with disabilities in the provision of IT equipment, and the potential damage to Leonard Cheshire Disability's fundraising activities, to its supporter base and, most of, all to its reputation.

At its baldest, it might be seen as accepting money to help one group that has been generated by causing health problems to many millions around the globe. "Smoking kills", as it says on the packets.

This call is about as adult as it gets and the trustees have no one to hide behind. I'm not going to sit in judgement on them. The child in me is simply thankful that this is not the kind of decision I have had to make - yet.

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

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