Peter Stanford: There are advantages to experience

You don't get so fazed by challenges and what causes you sleepless nights at 30 no longer affects your slumbers, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

It sounds suspiciously like a perfect storm. According to a survey in this article, 23 per cent of trustees say the pressure on them is getting too great, and 27 per cent are thinking of stepping down. Cause and effect, presumably. And while the trustee ranks are being depleted, the same poll says 43 per cent of those questioned have had problems recruiting new trustees in the past two years. So more vacancies and fewer candidates to fill them.

The causes are well known: more responsibilities, greater scrutiny and ever more complex organisations. But I want to focus on one potential solution, even if only short-term, for any board struggling to fill vacancies. Existing good practice suggests a trustee's tenure should be for no more than eight to 10 years. And there are clear dangers in "going on and on and on", as Margaret Thatcher found to her cost. No sooner had she uttered the words, than the Tory grandees gathered to evict her from 10 Downing Street.

As one who clocked up close to 20 years on the same trustee board, I know all too well the value of time limits. By the end I was running on auto-pilot, while the charity was changing and growing, and needed someone at the controls. Of course, all good things must come to an end, but setting an arbitrary cut-off point is not necessarily the right way to go.

It might work in the world of politics, where experience suggests that even the most exemplary leader becomes jaded, if not corrupted, by the exercise of power after eight years. But in the third sector we are not governed by the electoral cycle, so in certain situations, and with certain individuals, there is a case to be made for longer-than-usual tenures as a trustee: situations, I would suggest, such as the one we find ourselves in, with too many emptying chairs and not enough new blood to fill them.

There are, I can report, advantages to experience. You don't get so easily fazed by challenges, for example. What caused me sleepless nights at 30 no longer affects my slumbers now. For some that might reek of complacency, or something worse, but when you have enjoyed a longish spell as a charity trustee, and if you've done the job well, you will have faced most situations that throw charities into chaos: the chief executive who departs overnight for a better-paid job, or one who needs to leave rapidly for other reasons; funds raised suddenly falling far short of funds required; an unholy mess in the accounts; or even, perish the thought, a bad case of founder-member syndrome. And that experience shouldn't be wasted because of some blanket time limit.

A friend at a national newspaper recently told an instructive tale. After years of culling older staff members to make way for the new digital generation, more in tune with the spirit of the age, the bigwigs realised they'd thrown the baby out with the bathwater. What they really needed was a balance - the collective energy and eagerness of youth, with a dash of wisdom from those who had been round the block a few times. Not a bad formula, you might think, for our trustee boards in stormy times.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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