Comment: Retired colonels of middle England, arise!

It's time to stop sniping at England's army of middle-class volunteers, says retired colonel Charles Kenyon.

Charles Kenyon
Charles Kenyon

I am a middle-aged and middle-class trustee. As such, I come from the largest demographic in the country, which is also the most well-off in terms of time and money.

Some commentators do not like us, particularly when it comes to charity governance and the value of our volunteering. We are the well-meaning but uncutting-edge amateurs. Hang on - well-meaning? No, not altogether. There is a good chance that we are condescending, or out of touch, or trying to exculpate our guilt for something or other.

In certain circles, we attract a slight snigger. We are not diverse enough, inclusive enough or young enough to have any high ground from which to respond to the stings of these sharpshooters. Interestingly, however, there is one characteristic that binds many of these snipers together: they earn their livings working with charities.

Of 190,000 registered charities, about 100,000 have incomes of less than £10,000. It is very unlikely that these charities have any paid staff at all. Charities from the next group, with incomes from £10,000 to £100,000, are likely to employ only one or two staff each, probably part-time. We are now down to the last 10 per cent of charities - the well-off ones that are staffed professionally and get more than 90 per cent of all charitable giving.

My work, that of my wife and that of our parents, is in the under-£100,000 income bracket. Assuming each of these 100,000 charities has on average half a dozen trustees, there must be about a million of us involved in governance and administration. And what an administration it is. The paperwork still has to be waded through, the responsibility and liability often rests on uninsured shoulders (because insurance is expensive) and you can bet that expense accounts are generally completely unknown.

I mention our family - our middle-class family - because being foolish enough to spend rather a lot of time and money on others is something we have been brought up to do. It is a duty - it may be a great pleasure too, but it is, first and foremost, our responsibility to help people less fortunate than ourselves. So one of us has run refugee camps in Bosnia; another helps non-resident parents bring up their children; another looks after people when they are destitute; and another looks after the church.

But how much actual good for others comes from these smaller, volunteer-run charities, and how do we measure the output? As far as I know, this has never been done. Our local almshouses provide a good example of the situation many small charities find themselves in. They were founded in 1675 to provide sheltered accommodation for farming people in need. We still do that. Three people are well looked after and live in attractive circumstances. These are three people in a community of 45 that the local authority does not have to look after, so they free funds and places for three more. Of course the charity is short of cash, as are all small charities, so no trustee claims any expenses. We did once enter into a discussion with one of the residents about trusteeship - a result of the Charity Commission's User on Board initiative, which encourages beneficiaries to become trustees. But because expenses are not paid, the resident showed no interest.

This sort of bar would become a real problem if any regulation saying trustees should not serve more than two terms were ever to be implemented, or if charities were made to demonstrate that their boards were made up of people who met the Home Office definition of a diverse background. Rather in the way that regulations for accessible toilet facilities are closing small public conveniences all over the country, the unintended consequence of making trustees jump through hoops will be charities going under because no one else will take them on, or, where there is a small pool of expertise, will have the competence to run them.

So could we please be judged for what we do, not for what it is thought we are? Significant sections of society are underpinned by the work of these million or so unsung trustees. What what would happen if we all just went home and put our slippered feet up? Perhaps the minister for volunteering could offer an opinion.

- Charles Kenyon is a trustee and volunteer with Families Need Fathers, Theatre Alive! and Bell's Almshouses.


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