Peter Stanford: Why I decided against going back to chairing a charity

Without a deep-rooted attachment to a charity's cause you will never convince people to travel with you, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

It is another case of that old adage about waiting for ages for a bus to come along and then two or three appear. I haven't exactly been waiting in the cold at the bus stop since I retired as chair of Aspire nearly two years ago, but I have occasionally stood at the kerbside and looked up the road to see what is coming along.

It is a kind of trustee itch, if you like. I suspect that many of us have it once we have served one term. But up to now I have been content to look and then get on with other committees. Until recently, that is, when I spotted two buses coming along at the same time with enough on the destination board to make me think hard about getting on board.

I know I'm in danger of stretching the metaphor too far now, because one of them was the result of a phone call from a headhunter, and they don't tend to hang out on buses. In plain terms, two charities were looking for chairs in areas where I have an interest. The details of each are not important, but the thought process sheds light on my own motivations and, I hope, on what makes for a decent charity chair.

Indeed, the fact that there was a thought process is, arguably, a sign of personal progress. In the past I have been a great believer in instinct. When I was asked, my mouth used to reply before my brain was engaged. Perhaps it is a sign of maturity or even experience that the process is now reversed.

So, brain - why put myself forward to do it again? There is the fact that a part of me misses it. After 20-odd years as the chair of the national spinal injuries charity, I thought that I'd had my fill. If I am honest, for about 12 months after leaving, I was glad not to feel so responsible any more. Rather like a parent whose teenager had gone to university, I worried, but figured the test of what I had tried to do at the charity was whether it went on flourishing. Being surplus to requirements is often our greatest achievement.

But lately there has been a creeping sense of a trustee-shaped hole, or a need for a new challenge. There are other boards I sit on now - so perhaps even considering the two vacancies shows I want to be in control and think I'm always the best one to lead anything. It is best to have a long, hard look in the mirror before putting yourself forward for anything. The most effective leaders are team players.

I have always been a believer that the best-governed charities tend to throw up the next chair from the existing board. It is succession planning, if you like. To be a decent chair, you should also have people working with you at trustee level who could comfortably take your place. If you don't, it might be a sign that you have surrounded yourself with 'yes' men and women who ultimately won't challenge you.

So when an organisation brings in head-hunters or advertises to find a new chair, you have to ask, "why are they resorting to the external rather than the internal market?" There can, of course, be good reasons: the desire for a step change in governance; a willingness to look at new ideas; or an admission that the existing members, though skilled in their own areas, do not have the combination of skills, time and inclination to take the chair.

But the most important factor in deciding whether to apply, I have concluded, is passion. Do you feel passionate about the particular cause? Too often, I have met distinguished, senior individuals, drawn from industry, the City, the forces or senior levels of Whitehall, who talk about taking on a new challenge by becoming a charity chair and describe it as a natural progression - the sort of thing you do when you start winding down professionally. That is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. But then I wait for them to talk up the particular cause they are now chairing with any sort of genuine passion that shows they know it is more than a job.

Above all, it is the passion that makes you effective as a chair. Yes, you can be great at HR, great at strategy, great at vision and incredibly well-connected - all the qualities that are routinely listed on those person specifications that go with jobs. But without a real, deep-rooted attachment to your charity's cause, you will never convince people to travel with you, whether it be in terms of introducing major change or in drawing in new support and new expertise.

It was passion that was my stumbling block with the two vacancies I was mulling over. I admired them and liked what they did, but they didn't float my boat - or my bus.

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

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