Trustee talk: I feel privileged to be able to help out

Lord Ian McColl, chairman of Mercy Ships, tells Jo Barrett of his contribution to the charity.

I've been a trustee of the charity Mercy Ships, which takes free medical aid to developing nations by boat, for 10 years. It came about because I knew Sir John Chalstrey, the former lord mayor of London and supporter of the charity. We were surgeons together, and in 1996 he held a banquet to raise awareness of Mercy Ships.

As a result of that banquet, I worked on one of the ships and was subsequently asked if I'd like to sit on the trustee board. I became chairman of the UK branch and later vice-chairman of the international board.

I chose Mercy Ships above any other charity because I felt it was doing something unique. The sort of operations we do in developing countries are for people in quite desperate situations. Bringing hope to such communities appealed to me very much.

The recruitment process was very informal. Back then, trusteeship wasn't as professional as it is now. These days, trustees go on all sorts of courses and things, which is good.

In terms of how much time I devote to the charity, I would say I'm on the phone or speaking about Mercy Ships at meetings every day of the week. It's great fun, however.

My main job as chair of the board is to support the chief executive and the paid staff. I'm keen not to interfere, however. The trustees need to trust and support the staff, but they don't want us breathing down their necks.

We have a very close relationship with all of our staff, and trustees are encouraged to visit the ship at least once a year. In fact, we have an annual board meeting on the ship. It's important for the crew to meet the trustees, and vice versa.

The biggest challenge for me as chairman is finding enough money. That's a constant problem. At the moment, we've got to find another £10m to keep our operations going.

When I go out and operate on the ship, it's such a privilege. Last month, we performed surgery on a man who had been blind for years. After his cataracts were removed, he shrieked with delight and praised God. Operating on fistula patients, with whom abnormal passageways develop between organs or vessels that shouldn't connect, has also been very satisfying.

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