Peter Stanford: Trustee appointments are an imperfect compromise

Board members can be appointed because of what they know and who they know, says our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

There has been much angry and justified talk of late about declining social mobility and how the middle classes always seem to come out on top because of their access to personal networks and resources - in schools admissions, getting work experience placements for their children that help with university applications, or the internships that lead them into the professions.

When I emerged from college 30 years ago, my parents had no contacts or friends of friends who could open doors for me or explain how the system worked. If I was starting out today, I'd probably be stuck in Birkenhead for the rest of my days sending out application letters for jobs that had already been filled by a nod and a wink between a family friend and the chief executive.

Instinctively, then, I am 100 per cent with those who are protesting about the 'informal market' that denies working-class kids a fair crack of the whip. But recently I was called by an old friend who many moons ago let me live in her house rent-free when she was away for a year. Her oldest son is now - hard to believe - 21 and keen to be a journalist, and she wondered if I could arrange for him to do work experience on a Catholic newspaper (the Catholic press was my first training ground in the press).

She asked so very nicely and managed to make me recall my debt to her without ever being so vulgar as to mention it; so I found myself ringing a contact in the church press. I tried to put a word in, but quickly had my ear bitten off about my attempt to call in a favour. At first I was taken aback by the vehemence of my dressing down, but soon I realised I deserved it.

I tell this tale not because I'm Catholic and addicted by training to public mea culpas, but rather because it brought home to me one of the great strengths of the middle class - once it has assimilated you, it manages to make something as unjust as string-pulling seem as normal as second homes in the country, private tutors and inherited wealth.

All of this formed my mental backdrop when I read the Institute of Philanthropy's new study of trustee appointments, The State of UK Charity Boards, based on interviews with chairs and chief executives of 100 charities. Forty-nine per cent of such appointments, it says, come through personal recommendations; only 20 per cent of respondents advertised to fill vacancies on their trustee boards.

Again, my instinct is against old-boy and girl networks, but my practice is less than pure. When I became a trustee at Aspire back in the Bronze Age, it was not through an advert, but because the founder's daughter was my best friend at university. That wasn't the only reason (I hope): I also had some professional skills and contacts, had lived all my life with disability (my mum had MS when I was born) and had been doing various voluntary roles there for the previous three years.

So it was a mixed bag of motives and methods. And, if I examine my conscience about subsequent trustee appointments I have been involved in as chair, I admit that open competition has never been their hallmark.

The charity is not a membership organisation, so there has been no vote. New trustees have tended to emerge by a process that is halfway between the 'depends-who-you-know' route and public advertisement.

We do have established practices, such as asking potential trustees to serve apprenticeships in other voluntary roles at the charity. That allows both sides to see how we gel. When there is a vacancy, we try to work out what skills we need on the board and then search out the best person, rather than vice versa. But it is far from perfect.

Yet - and forgive me if I have made this point before - trusteeship is often an imperfect compromise. Yes, it would be ideal if every trustee board was elected by users, members or beneficiaries and made up of a perfectly weighted combination of gender, race, age and background. But a charity could expend its whole effort on that goal and still not get it right.

And so, instead, we do our best, recognising our imperfections and addressing them in the midst of busy charities and busy lives. Nearly half of trustees were identified by personal contact - undoubtedly too high, and something that should be tackled. But let's also recognise that this situation has not arisen through malice, but as part of a much wider social pattern.

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

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