Peter Stanford: Effective trustees can't just have 'strategic oversight'

If you care you are going to have to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Much is said and written today about the proper behaviour of trustees as regards the day-to-day workings of "their" charities.

The core message is about staying close but maintaining a strategic oversight. Which is absolutely right, of course. But what if you are involved in one of the minnows of the sector?

I’m part of a tiny prison reform charity that hands out scholarships to serving and ex-prisoners to enable them to go to university and runs a big annual lecture in central London. Too big, to be honest, for our mini-office resources, which have the equivalent of 1.5 people full-time. What makes it possible for the event to make such a splash every year is the sleeves-rolled-up participation of the trustees.

The most recent event happened late last year: 700 guests, a panel of four speakers, a prize-giving ceremony, training sessions before and a reception afterwards. We didn’t take on any extra staff, but used volunteers, and included in their ranks were all eight trustees, each one immersed in a particular aspect, whether it be organising the judging of the prize, marshaling the volunteers or designing the stage backdrop. Real, practical, hands-on tasks. Without them, it would have been impossible to pull off this year, as for the past 17 years.

In the heat of the evening, there was no time to think whether this was an appropriate level of trustee involvement, but basking in the warm afterglow of a task completed to everyone’s satisfaction, the one question mark in my head is how comfortably what happened on the night sits with the official guidelines.

Part of the problem with any official guidance is that it is produced to cover a variety of scenarios, otherwise we would be tied up in red tape. And in my experience of trustee-dom at all levels of this sector, from large to tiny organisations, there is such a huge gulf between high and low-income charities that we could be on different continents.

I find it hard to believe that, in these smaller organisations, the trustees can limit themselves to oversight and strategic direction and therefore keep out of the day-to-day urgency of too much to do and too few people to do it. If you care – and you really have to care to be an effective trustee – you are going to want to help out.

Perhaps not every day: that would suggest, in a strategic sense, that the organisation is unsustainable. But on high days and holidays, and they come around on a regular basis.

So how far can that involvement be reflected in the guidelines issued, the mantras chanted and the widely available training that now comes highly recommended, if not required?

It is a nigh-on impossible task. I have huge faith in words to convey all sorts of meanings, if properly deployed, but even the finest wordsmith will struggle to bridge the gap between the trustees at the 76,925 registered charities with annual incomes of £10,000 or less and the 2,273 with more than £5m.

Or, indeed, convey the sheer joy of the all-hands-to-the-pump model of trusteeship I saw in action.

But a way needs to be found because I increasingly meet too many eminently qualified people who tell me that they would like to share whatever expertise they have as charity trustees, but are put off by what seems to them a rigid, bureaucratic and legally onerous weight that they have to carry on their shoulders if they sign up.

Let’s hear more about the joy. Yes, of course, to professionalism and proper regulation, but let’s capture and distil that spirit of getting together and using our energy as well as our brains and contact lists to make what we care about happen. It can be the one bright light in an otherwise fairly gloomy world right now.

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

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