Viewpoint: So what are trustees for in any case?

Understanding the role of the trustee should help you find the right people for the board.

What is a trustee for? It's that ever-present doubt that haunts us all as we sit deliberating on things we often know too little about.

I was recently involved in a debate with fellow trustees about finding a replacement for a colleague who had stood down. One group was in favour of replacing like with like. Each trustee has his or her allotted role, after all, so it is a question of finding a matching piece to make the jigsaw complete once again.

But no two people are identical. And isn't a resignation often an opportunity to rebalance and bring in a new set of skills in changing circumstances? It led, inevitably, to a deeper discussion about the point of a trustee.

One board member was convinced that what trustees bring to a charity is the ability to raise money. He felt they should be senior businesspeople with an array of wealthy contacts.

Such money is, of course, pretty tough to get. However much we wish for a funding meritocracy, the reality remains that having friends in the right places still helps push your charity up the list of potential beneficiaries. So there is logic to this position.

But shouldn't we, objected another member, be looking for a trustee who knows something about the area in which we operate? Or who at least has sympathy with it? It is no good, he argued, having a trustee board full of City names when it has to make judgements about operational matters that concern the charity's front-line work.

That, he was told firmly by the first speaker, was the role of a patron. Assemble a board of patrons or advisers who can share their wealth of expertise in the field with the trustees, but leave the crucial matter of raising the money to the board.

You could just as easily argue that the 'financial' people should be the patrons and the 'experts' trustees. But, one protagonist objected, being a trustee carries higher status. I have always tended to see it the other way round. Being a patron puts you on the inside track, but leaves you free of legal burdens and free to speak your mind.

I suspect the answer comes down to compromise. We ended up deciding to seek two new trustees, one of each variety. Which then got us on to the question of the ideal size for a board. That's a thorny question that must be left for another occasion.

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

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