Viewpoint: Three key qualities for trusteeship

You need time, passion and common sense to make a meaningful contribution to a board.

We are, as a society, growing ever fonder of lists. At a charity dinner last month, my businessman neighbour asked what were the three most important qualities needed by trustees. In the heat of the moment, I stuttered out some inadequate reply and then distracted his attention by filling his glass and asking him the same question about his work.

One of the sure signs of arriving at middle age is when you cannot come up with an immediate answer to such questions. I had just about formulated one when we got on to dessert, but by then he had moved round the table. So, on the principle of waste not, want not - which is crucial to charities - here's my list.

Number one is time. It's no good agreeing to be a trustee and not being willing, however tough your schedule, to put in sufficient hours. Reading the minutes of meetings you've missed and emailing back your comments is not enough.

Linked to this is number two: passion. You must feel passionately about the work your charity does and embrace its vision. If you don't, you probably won't make putting time aside for it a priority. And you certainly won't convince anyone else that the cause is worth supporting.

Third - and most important - is common sense. This is a much underrated virtue in an age when everybody guards their particular speciality. Renaissance men are derided as well-meaning amateurs, and even the most incontrovertible observations and patterns have no validity until confirmed by a telephone poll, expensive research or a PhD dedicated to proving the blooming obvious.

Everyone's a generalist

Since the trustee table would have to be longer than the Forth Bridge if we were to accommodate representatives of every discipline and profession involved in running a modern, major league charity, we have to accept that we are essentially generalists. And the sine qua non of the generalist is common sense.

With it, you can be equally effective with figures, donors or delicate personnel matters. And it also has a direct impact on qualities one and two. With a little common sense, the precious hours that you put in won't be spent on pointless navel-gazing at trustee meetings.

And remember, your passion and vision has to be mitigated by a common-sense appraisal of what is possible.

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

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