Peter Stanford: When love is proved in the letting go

The hardest step for trustees is taking a step back, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Even the biggest charities started small. Scan the "our history" section on the websites of the giants of our sector and you will read familiar tales about the coming together of like-minded individuals with something they wanted to tackle. At that moment, who was called what - director, chairman, trustee - mattered little. Everything and everyone was interchangeable and the collective energy made the whole something greater than the sum of its parts.

I never tire of reading such stories. I've been there at the early days of a fledgling charity and nothing can quite replace the buzz. But few of the "our history" sections bother with chapter two: when the collective effort is so successful that the demands become greater and the personalities have to shake down into some kind of professional structure. And when it can get messy.

I'm not just talking about founder's syndrome. No, I mean something wider, where roles become defined and people who have invested time and heart in getting to that point suddenly find themselves having to sit on their hands when things they wouldn't have chosen are happening. They no longer have a veto, so the charity suffers from growing pains.

In my early days at the start of the 1990s as a charity chair at Aspire, the national spinal injuries charity, the office staff consisted of three full-timers, but such was the momentum the organisation was building that this trio were often working 24/7 just to keep up. As chair, it seemed natural to roll up my sleeves and join in, as did some of the other trustees.

Our good fortune was that all continued to go well, so the charity expanded until we came to that awkward time when the trustees had to take a step back and start acting like "proper" trustees. This, I would argue, is the hardest step of all, in governance terms, in a charity's life story.

Because it feels so personal, in too many expanding charities the line continues to be blurred between trustees and management. So when practical - as opposed to strategic - decisions come up, pushed by the management team, those same intimately involved, long-serving trustees are sometimes unable to do their legal duty and leave the chief executive to make his or her own mistake - or triumph.

It is akin to watching your child grow up, and just as painful. "Selfhood begins with a walking away," as the former Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis memorably described it, "and love is proved in the letting go."

It is absolutely necessary for good health, but there is no easy answer about how to achieve it with minimum hurt. My way around it - I chaired Aspire from childhood until it was so grown up I was virtually the grandfather - presented itself by accident. For a year I had to absent myself from being chair. When I returned, the lines were clearer, the roles and responsibilities better-defined and understood, and my sleeves could remain rolled down. And we were all so much the better for it.

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

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