Debra Allcock Tyler: My mum's view of Sir Paul McCartney holds a message for every charity trustee

There is no hard and fast rule for when a trustee should retire, says our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

My mother is known for her forthright views and has recently been particularly outspoken - nay, even acerbic - on the subject of Sir Paul McCartney. In fairness, I should point out that although my mother was a Beatles-era babe, she's never been a huge fan of the band.

The gist of her argument centres on McCartney's recent appearances at the jubilee concert and the Olympic Games opening ceremony. She says that not only does he look weird because of the "botox" and strange hair colour, but - more heinously - he can, in her view, no longer sing. She feels strongly that he needs to grow up and move on to allow new generations to headline and take the limelight.

She was particularly acidic about "those people" who don't know when their time is up - they need to "let go and do something else", she says. I won't reveal what she suggested Sir Paul should go and do, because I'm fairly sure Third Sector wouldn't print it!

I don't know whether I agree with her about that, but it got me thinking about how hard it is as a trustee to know when you've stayed too long.

Is there even such a thing as 'too long'? After all, if you created the charity, believe passionately in the cause and have been instrumental in its success, why would you move on? This issue resonates with me because I am currently writing a book about the human side of being a trustee.

Is there a right amount of time to serve on a board? Lord Hodgson suggested in his recent review of the Charities Act 2006 that trustees should be limited to three terms of no more than three years each. I'm not sure whether I agree - partly because some of the best-run, most forward-thinking, most creative charities I've come across have long-standing trustees who have been there since the year dot. But then again, there are also charities that are not progressing, precisely because some of their board members have been there too long.

I've also witnessed new trustees messing up a perfectly good charity because they don't understand what being a trustee means, or don't understand the cause or the voluntary sector context. Newness is no guarantee of competence; experience can be underrated. As a trustee, though, how on earth do you know if you have become a curse for your charity rather than a blessing? Ask someone? Maybe. But would they tell you the truth? Probably not.

I'd like to give you a hard and fast rule, but I'm afraid I don't think there is one. One probably shouldn't sacrifice an awesome trustee simply because they're a bit long in the tooth. On the other hand, it is desperately difficult to get rid of a terrible trustee, especially if they've been around a long time.

Perhaps the best advice I can give is encapsulated in one of Sir Paul's most famous songs: live and let die. Which, I suppose, is what my mother was really trying to say to him.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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