Peter Stanford: Pick your trustee training with care

Don't feel pushed into buying third-party training if there are better - and cheaper - options available, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Where there is regulation - often imposed by lawmakers for very good reasons - there are also opportunists who see a chance to make money.

Once upon a time school governors did their best, used their common sense and muddled through. Now they are weighed down by such a long list of statutory responsibilities that they have to go on frequent governor training sessions.

Some are very good, some are a colossal waste of time that simply enable the school to tick boxes when Ofsted comes a calling (I write from experience), and all are costly. A whole service industry - often run by people who once usefully staffed our classrooms - has grown up to fill the niche and make profits.

And now, it seems, the trustee boards of charities are wandering down the same road. As concerns are rightly raised about the probity and conduct of a tiny minority of charities, calls are regularly heard that trustees must be better trained in this, that and the other. My inbox is constantly full of "unmissable" opportunities.

None is unmissable. Some could be very useful, but some promise training in the bloomin' obvious.

As ever, there is a balance to be struck. I've argued here before that many trustees could do with a bit of financial and accounting training. I took up the offer and still feel a little burst of elation when I can read down a column of figures. One of the great innovations of recent times has been decent induction training for trustees. I've sat on boards where a colleague, having been in post for several years, will lean over at a meeting and ask a question that reveals an at best shaky grasp on what the charity we are both serving actually does.

So good training, yes please. It can often be done in-house, though, especially the inductions. No need to waste resources on consultants or outside providers. Indeed, charities could help each other. A charity that wants to give new trustees disability awareness training, for example, could turn to a charity working in that field and barter some training from its own specialism in return. Cost-effective, practical and all contributing to closer collaborative working.

But consider one email that arrived recently, offering training for trustees to - it said in the small print - avoid making the mistakes that caused Olive Cooke to take her own life. What it meant was better practice in fundraising, but what it didn't seem to understand is that Olive Cooke was not driven to suicide by an avalanche of appeal letters from charities. The coroner made that crystal clear when he delivered his verdict on her death, and her family has been clear about her long history of depression. So what level of expertise are these "trustee trainers" going to give if they can't get the basic facts right?

My advice is to pick carefully, if you pick at all. Better still, do the training you can in-house or pro bono, and please don't be duped into rushing to tick boxes that so far, thank God, we are not required to tick.

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

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