Trustee talk: Why our true aim is to cease to exist

Fred Robinson, serial trustee and academic, tells Maisie McCabe about his various roles.

I'm a trustee of two charities, but I've just stepped down from a third and am considering a fourth. The current two are community mental health charity Waddington Street Centre in Durham and the Churches Regional Commission in the north-east, which supports region-wide church projects.

My role is different at each organisation. At Waddington Street, I'm chair, but the board at CRC consists mainly of bishops whose dioceses contribute financially, so I'm just not on the same level as them.

Waddington is my first love. I've volunteered there for 20 years and have been a trustee for 15. The board includes a high proportion of service users, so we have to be aware of the fact that they are managing serious mental health problems and avoid asking too much, or too little, from them.

I was involved with Nepacs, a prison visitors centre, for eight years. I recently stepped down because I felt my time had come to an end, and I was also approached by another organisation. Its work fits with my social policy research in regeneration issues at Durham University.

It can be difficult to know every bit of business at a charity as a trustee. That's one of the reasons why I stepped down from Nepacs. Board meetings were only once a quarter, so if I missed one it'd be six months between meetings, and I couldn't follow everything.

Generally, I've been involved in well-run organisations - I've had no reason to worry about losing my house so far. Most of the time they run themselves, although there are occasions when the role of trustee can be more demanding.

You have to recognise when you're not doing as much as you should be doing; that can be difficult. Some people say you should never be a trustee for longer than five or 10 years, but I disagree. It's good to have people who know the charity's history.

But charities should make sure they don't become self-serving. Waddington Street is next to a viaduct and there would be more suicides if we weren't there. But the goal has to be that everyone gets well and we cease to exist.

Although being a trustee is time-consuming, it is just what I do in my spare time. My children have grown up and I'm not interested in sport; it works for me. In the end, trusteeship is as much about reciprocity as altruism: you get out much more than you put in."

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