Peter Stanford: What do trustees need most? Passion

That and common sense, writes our columnist

I have of late been sitting in too many management training sessions, where they are overly fond of flashing up single-word statements on PowerPoint to hammer home their messages. This has made me wonder: what are the essential qualities a trustee needs, expressed in a single word or two, and how would I formulate the slide?

Regular readers will not be surprised at my first choice - common sense. And before you point out that it is common sense to choose common sense, think back to the sort of nonsense and box-ticking that happens at trustee meetings. But what other words need to be there? How about passion?

There is, inevitably, another reason why I have been mulling this over. It is a couple of years since I stood down from my last trustee board. During what I always intended as a pause, not a full stop, a number of opportunities have arisen, and I've been very tempted. After you have spent years on various trustee boards, you get a kind of trustee twitch that makes life without such an involvement seem a bit pale.

But when I read the details of the organisations, I found I couldn't work up much of a passion for what they do. I was full of admiration and convinced that what was being done was necessary, but they just didn't get me raring to go.

There are lots of reasons why people become trustees. It often starts because of a personal contact with a cause. I first got involved with disability charities because my mum was a wheelchair-user all through my childhood. Given the professionalisation of our sector in recent decades, however, trustee boards have been encouraged to recruit those with business skills. So lawyers, accountants and company directors have all been sought out. Often they are nearing retirement and see sitting on a charity board as both putting something back and a career move. They are used to being in the thick of things and see a trusteeship as carrying status and keeping them, part-time, right up there where the decisions are made.

Nothing wrong with that. Theirs can be an invaluable contribution to any board, but it doesn't necessarily mean the individual in question has much of a passion for the cause. You get the sense it could have been one of any number of charities that decent-minded folk might take up in semi-retirement.

But passion? Getting under the skin of what the organisation is about? Being prepared to think afresh as a result of your involvement? Feeling outside your comfort zone?

That is what I have finally realised I need right now, if I'm going to give my time and commitment to a new cause as a trustee. And, by chance, the right fit seems to have come along - something unpopular, counter-cultural and working with people most of us would cross the street to avoid. Final details are being settled, so I can't say too much just now, but I am already feeling that rush that comes with the best of trustee posts - passion.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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