Trustee talk: After 14 years, it's time to move on

Jo Barrett interviews Dr Katia Herbst, the outgoing chair of deaf-blind charity Sense.

I will have been with Sense, the UK's largest deaf-blind charity, for almost 14 years when I step down later this year. That includes six years as chair and eight years as a trustee.

I'm stepping down because I think I should. Fourteen years is enough for me and also for the charity. New people bring with them new ideas.

My role as chair has mostly been about consolidating the charity's terrific achievements of previous years - we've now been going for more than half a century.

I have to allocate one day a week to the role - chairing a charity of this size is a huge commitment. Even ordinary trustees have to do much more than attend four board meetings a year.

Sense aims to have a board consisting of people who have skills to offer as well as an interest in deaf-blindness. There is always someone who knows more about a certain issue than anyone else. It's a terrific system: it means that trustees can get deeply involved.

An awful lot of work goes on behind the scenes at a large charity like ours. We've done two appraisals since I've been chair, and both revealed gaps we needed to work on. We realised we needed to keep up to date with developments in our field. We now start our board meetings an hour earlier so we can hear lectures about current issues on the deaf-blind agenda.

One of our greatest achievements as a board has been witnessing how the organisation has got a grip on its finances. That's mainly thanks to the chief executive. We've been able to put in very strong financial controls, which has been quite a challenge. Generally, the bigger you get, the more difficult that becomes. All charities like ours have major problems with getting the money that's due for the work they do.

We've also campaigned rigorously for deaf-blind rights to be recognised and for local authorities to meet their responsibilities. As a result, deaf-blind guidance was officially introduced under the Local Authority Social Services Act in 2001.

I've loved every minute of my involvement with Sense. It has been pretty tough at times; it's a lot of work and a terrific commitment, but as a chair you must do what you can do.

If I were to offer advice to other trustees, I'd say trust yourself and go with your heart as well as your brain. A lot of people are shy to come forward, but everyone has a contribution to make and everybody is valuable.

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