Opinion: Don't get rid of our 'amateur' trustees

Many people still think charities are run by volunteers - and in a sense they are right.

It has become fashionable to decry our time-honoured, amateuristic way of doing things in these isles. But as someone who still has some sympathy for John Major's famous image of Britain as a nation of cricket pavilions, warm beer and old ladies on bikes, my attention was caught by nfpSynergy's recent finding that 62 per cent of the public still define a charity as "an organisation run by volunteers" (6 August, page 1).

This was interpreted as evidence that too many people were clinging to an outdated notion of charities. But perhaps they weren't being quite so behind the times as was suggested.

The Charity Commission instils in trustees that, when push comes to shove, it is we who bear the ultimate responsibility. And we are volunteers. I make no case at all for the day-to-day management to be done by volunteers. The rise of professionalism in recent decades has made the sector more effective, focused and worthy of public admiration. But it is our genius that we have kept the voluntary aspect in the role of trustees.

Public trust

This is what is distinct about our sector. It is why the public trust us in a way that they do not trust official agencies. I am sure that, on paper, a group of con-sultants could show it was illogical to have volunteer trustees overseeing a multi-million pound sector. But the public, as the research demonstrates, see it differently - and when people state something as fact, they are often stating what they want to be true.

Those who argue that the whole governance of charities needs to change to reflect the professionalism in their operations would do well to ponder this. Sidelining 'amateur' trustees - too often castigated as white, middle class and elderly - may have a modern buzz about it, but in a sector that depends on the public's respect and goodwill, it could spell disaster.

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

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