Peter Stanford: Amateurs can be a mixed blessing

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of a charity, every trustee should ensure that good money management is shared by all, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

We Brits will, I suspect, never lose our soft spot for the well-intentioned amateur. It's too deeply engrained in our national psyche. You see it in sport, where we still thrill at the antics of "giant-killers" in cup competitions. And it's there also in music – the plucky club singer who dreams of making it big on The Voice. In charities, though, the long-standing cult of the well-intentioned amateur on the trustee board is more of a mixed blessing.

One of the first boards I joined was at a small disability charity: the chair, a retired businessman with no obvious link to the cause, would listen benignly to staff describing the effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes they were running, then shake his head and remark: "I know I'd kill myself if I was that disabled." It should have been a resigning matter, but the rest of the board just said: "Oh, that's just his way of putting things."

Another worrying feature of the cult of the amateur trustee is their tendency to glide over the core legal and financial matters that should concern the whole board if the charity is to be well governed and public money well managed. "Leave it to the experts," they say, "and take steps to make sure the board includes an accountant and a lawyer." But that isn't "problem solved", as - mea culpa – I might have said in the past. I have been guilty, when sitting on and even chairing trustee boards, of giving the financial reports and the annual return to the Charity Commission little more than a cursory glance before deferring to the greater wisdom of our resident accountant trustee.

The great thing about being human is that we can change. And I've seen the light and seen through the argument that runs: "I've too many other talents to bring to the table to worry about figures." My personal road-to-Damascus experience happened when I swapped roles to run a small prison reform trust and found myself as the (very) part-time director responsible for putting together the figures for the trustees. There was no one to hide behind. Years of telling myself it was all a mystery prompted me to get some training. It didn't take long. I can now manage bookkeeping, read endless columns of figures, budget and even get to grips with accruals. I'll never get a job in finance, but bringing myself up to basic speed has, I can report, been pretty painless; and it is the key, I'm convinced, to all of us being more effective trustees.

Yes, there should always be room round the trustee table for a bit of well-intentioned amateurism. If it is the right person, they will add another dimension to the ranks of professionals – this is left-field thinking that can sometimes bring wonderful results. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of a charity, such as finance, each and every trustee should be willing to go that extra half mile to polish up their maths and ensure that this absolutely crucial duty of good money management is shared by all.

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

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