Viewpoint: Put your cause before conscience

Should trustees shelve their beliefs when deciding where to invest their charity's reserves?

How far should a trustee allow his or her own beliefs to shape the policies of their charity? At first sight, it's a no-brainer. You are there not as a representative, but as yourself, so you have a duty to put over your views. But it is not always that straightforward. Take the question of where you invest the charity's reserves. If it is going into a fund, should that fund be an ethical one? And what counts as ethical?

The question came up recently at a trustee meeting. Finding myself, unusually during the finance section of the agenda, with something to contribute, I started making an ad hoc list of companies I didn't want our money supporting. The tobacco industry and arms trade were fairly universally endorsed, but I wasn't quite carrying my colleagues with me when it came to supermarkets. What, I was asked, has a boycott of supermarkets got to do with spinal cord injury - the area of the charity's work? Not a lot, I was forced to concede.

Then I was told that, as trustees, we have a duty to get the best return on our investment and we cannot simply devise a list of pet hates and exclude them. I like a heated debate, so I decided that this principle needed exploring further. Could we justifiably withhold investment in, say, the motor industry? Cars cause many spinal cord injuries, so my logic seemed impeccable. Or not: wasn't the real cause the drivers? It was decided to refer the matter to a sub-committee. I got the sense my services wouldn't be required as a member.

These details all came back to me when I was reading about the Charity Commission's current attempt to define the public benefit test for religious charities. What they have in mind is whether or not to give proselytising charitable status. Instinctively, I would say no. Not all of us want to go knocking on doors asking householders if they love Jesus, but there will be plenty of trustees with religious convictions. A devout Catholic, for example, might not want his or her charity to invest in a rubber company, given the Pope's antipathy to condoms. A Methodist might disapprove of a distillery. But are their reservations justified, or a private matter not to be visited on the charity?

Tricky ground, morally, but I am reminded of some excellent advice given to me by my first charity chair: the good of the cause is always more important than the individual. Time, I suspect, to keep quiet.

- Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, chairman of Aspire and director of the Frank Longford Charitable Trust.

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