Board Talk: Celebrity board members - what are the pros and cons?

Jonathan Britton and Stephen Oxley discuss the merits of recruiting famous trustees

Board Talk
Board Talk

JB: Sparks has always had celebrities on its trustee board because it was founded by people from the sports and entertainment world. One of our founders was the football presenter Jimmy Hill, who was not only a well-known sports figure but also a great administrator and ambassador for his sport. That tradition has continued and we currently have the TV presenter Floella Benjamin, the former rugby player Roger Uttley and the former footballer Trevor Brooking on the board. The presenter Gabby Logan was also a trustee until recently.

SO: Help For Heroes has been in existence for five years. It has eight trustees on the main charity board, none of whom I would describe as a celebrity. We have a large number of celebrity patrons, many of whom expressed support from the get-go and have continued to support the work of the charity.

Jonathan BrittonJB: In addition to its celebrity trustees, Sparks has many other celebrities who support our work through attending events, and in other ways. As celebrities, it is important to them that they not only identify strongly with the cause but also have confidence that they are supporting a well-run and governed charity, so they know their name will not be associated with something that could bring bad press. Having other celebrities on the board with whom they can talk, especially early on in their association with us, helps to give them that confidence. And having celebrities as trustees also helps us maintain a wide circle of celebrities, who help with our fundraising and overall profile.

 Stephen OxleySO: I don't think the board has ever discussed whether it should appoint a celebrity or two. If we did, I think we would look at the overall skill set of the individual in question - it would not just be a question of their celebrity status. That status, as Jonathan says, is very useful to assist a charity's fundraising activities. Of course, you need to be rather careful in your choice of celebrity because there are circumstances in which such a move could go wrong for the charity. But it is often the case that a celebrity will bring with him or her a fantastic network of contacts that can assist a charity in many different ways - and open doors that otherwise might be difficult to open.

JB: I agree that celebrities on the board should have the right skills. Many of our celebrities have a wide involvement in other walks of life that bring a lot to our board. For example, Floella Benjamin has been chair of Bafta and is now chancellor of the University of Exeter and a governor of Dulwich College. Trevor Brooking has had a long career in football administration and Roger Uttley was a senior schoolmaster. That experience brings a huge amount to our board and the way we think and act. We also have celebrities who act as ambassadors for Sparks but who do not, or cannot, devote the time required to be a trustee.

SO: The point you make about trustees having sufficient time is, to my mind, critical. Help For Heroes is a fast-moving and dynamic charity with a range of subsidiary businesses, including a trading division that turns over more than £5m a year and a charity-giving website. It is also rolling out a building programme costing more than £72m. As such, the skills required to handle the governance and strategic issues at trustee level are challenging. I see no reason at all why a celebrity could not fulfil some of the skills required - it just depends on who they are and what their experience is.

JB: One of the key things about which we remind anyone coming on to our board, including any celebrity, is that being a trustee carries a significant amount of responsibility and potential risk and is not something they should take on lightly. We seek to have a balance to our trustee board in terms of making sure we have all the right skills to ensure we are properly governed and managed but also that our key constituents are properly represented. Given our heritage, objectives and profile, having celebrities with the right skills who are prepared to give up sufficient time is a major asset for us - and I have no doubt it brings real value.

Jonathan Britton is chair of Sparks, the medical charity that funds research into conditions affecting babies and mothers-to-be

Stephen Oxley is a trustee of Help for Heroes, which supports wounded, injured and sick service personnel, veterans and their families


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