Stephen Cook: Are we asking too much of trustees?

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

As everyone knows, it’s been a hard year for fundraisers. They’ve been getting it in the neck from the media, a range of politicians and the chair of the Charity Commission. Some of it the criticism has been justified: there has been sharp practice in telephone fundraising and the use of donors’ data, for example. Some of the attacks, particularly those that go beyond just fundraising, have been less justified. The Sun’s recent pop at the Alzheimer’s Society and The Times’s attempt to discredit Help for Heroes this week, for example, had little real substance and fell rather flat. If anyone was at fault over Help for Heroes, it was the Ministry of Defence rather than the charity. And it was refreshing to hear Bryn Parry, the chief executive, hit back and tell The Times to "stop bitching".

But what about trustees? The events of this annus horribilis have also raised big questions about trusteeship, the most important component of all in the running of charities. Analysis of malpractice in fundraising has always, inevitably, led to the conclusion that, at the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of the trustees to make sure fundraising is done responsibly and ethically – see our good practice comment by the solicitor Rob Posgate. That’s why the government is introducing a sensible requirement for annual reports to include a statement on fundraising policy and practice.

Examination of the other big scandal of the summer – the collapse of Kids Company – also leads to the same conclusion: at the end of the day, it was a failure of governance. The trustees didn’t get a grip on what was going on and left it all to Camila, with disastrous results. And, as the chair of the Charity Commission, again, has more than once pointed out, the buck always stops with the trustees. It’s a simple truth, but with problematic ramifications.

The question is: what effect are recent events going to have on existing trustees in the sector generally, and on the always difficult task of recruiting good new ones? The whole business of trusteeship suddenly seems more onerous, fraught with risk and danger. How can I keep on top of all this stuff? Are we going to be next in the firing line? Am I going to be blamed for things no one even told me about? Am I going to end up being castigated by the commission, or even in front of the courts? Trustees are, after all, volunteers, and in nearly all cases unpaid. Will some of them conclude that they can do without all this stress and anxiety, thank you very much, and choose instead to play dominoes or spend more time with their families?

The rather austere, pessimistic atmosphere that has gathered around trusteeship has not been helped much by the publication in July by the Charity Commission of the revised version of CC3, its guidance for trustees. The document used to start with a cheery section extending congratulations and a welcome, saying how rewarding trusteeship could be. But the new-style, hard-nosed regime has set this aside in favour of the wagging finger: "The commission expects trustees to take their responsibilities seriously…". Many lawyers and governance experts think the revised document is more clear and comprehensible, but the change in mood music is also unmistakeable.

If trustees are indeed to take their responsibilities seriously, how big a commitment of time and energy does that involve? Many trustees are responsible for multi-million-pound organisations, some of which are as big as medium-sized corporations. People are generous and public-spirited, but such impulses have a limit. Some large charities have been known to ask their chairs to put in as much as one or two full days of work a week. There is a strong cultural resistance in the sector to the payment of trustees – our columnist Peter Stanford thinks it is an extremely slippery slope. On the other hand, it is hard to insist that people who are not being paid must do everything necessary to meet their responsibilities. They can’t be held to account in the way that employees can. Money, and the potential loss of it, tends to focus the mind. The Charity Commission does permit payment of trustees in exceptional circumstances, and perhaps it should relax the criteria it applies.

As usual in this multi-faceted and diverse sector, answers about trusteeship will vary widely between different charities with different purposes. Most will manage fine, and nearly all the rest will, at worst, muddle through. But one of the themes that emerges inescapably from this bruising year is that society might be asking too much of trustees, and recruiting and retaining them could well become harder in future.

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