Liam Preston, British Youth Council

The charity faced a major drop in income, but its 26-year-old chair helped transform its fortunes. Interview by Kaye Wiggins

Liam Preston
Liam Preston

When Liam Preston was elected chair of the British Youth Council in September 2010, aged 25, the charity faced a forecast 90 per cent drop in income from £1.2m to £150,000.

Since his appointment, Preston and his 13 trustees, all aged between 18 and 26, have helped the charity to bring in £500,000 of new funding and have set a 2011/12 budget of £850,000.

Preston was a trustee of the charity, which represents local youth councils and campaigns on issues affecting young people, for two years before he became its chair. He says he was nervous about taking on the role at a time when redundancies and a reduction in services looked imminent, but is glad that he did.

"When I was elected chair I made a speech," he says. "In the speech I remember saying that the greatest achievement we could hope for was for the charity to still exist in a year's time.

"It has been a busy year and we have gone through a lot of change, but I am so pleased that we managed to do it," he says. "I think it has been good for me to cut my teeth where I am dealing with a difficult situation rather than just keeping things steady."

Preston says people in the voluntary sector are sometimes surprised that such responsibility is given to a group of young people.

"A lot of people looking in from the outside ask why young people alone are making these tough decisions," he says. "But we have a high level of skills and we are very thorough - we talk about risk and the pros and cons of different decisions.

"I think being young makes us more dynamic and adventurous. That can mean being ambitious in the types of funding we apply for."

Preston - who first became involved with the charity after seeing an advert for trustees on Facebook - says he is able to devote a lot of time to his work as chair because, having recently finished a master's degree, he is currently unemployed.

"I've been to all three party conferences and next week I will be spending nine days in China for the charity," he says. "If I get a job we will have to rethink the way work is shared with other trustees."

Preston says being unemployed means he is able to speak in a compelling way about the issues affecting his generation, a key part of the charity's work. "I keep going for job interviews and being turned down at the final stage," he says. "When I was speaking on behalf of the charity at party conference fringe meetings about youth unemployment, I was able to speak with a fair degree of knowledge about the subject."

He says he has learned that good relationships between trustees make for good governance. "We are a very sociable board," he says. "I think this makes us stronger than some other boards. I've made some of my best friends here."

Preston says the charity's staff are "very comfortable" about being answerable to a board of young people, adding that they wouldn't work for the charity if they weren't passionate about youth.

Asked about his relationship with the charity's chief executive, James Cathcart, whom he describes with a smile as "quite a bit older than the trustees", he says they meet two or three times a month to discuss issues affecting the charity. "Well, I've got to keep an eye on him," he laughs.

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