Peter Stanford: Falling from grace should not rule you out as a trustee

The wisest people in this world are often those who have experienced adversity, says our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Who makes a fit and proper trustee? This is a perennial question for charities and the subject of endless guidance notes, directives, awaydays and consultant sessions. It has resurfaced of late because of the intriguing debate about the trustee roles of two former senior executives of the failed bank HBOS. Its one-time chief executive, Sir James Crosby, has stood down as a trustee of Cancer Research UK, but Lord Stevenson, another HBOS figure, is staying on as chair of the board at the mental health charity MQ. So which one is taking the right course of action?

At its simplest, a trustee is what it says on the tin - someone who can be trusted to see that the money the public gives to a charity is used properly. Based on this test, both men should go. The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards took a dim view of their trusteeship of the funds the public entrusted to the bank.

But that is too sweeping a judgement. I've never been much good at keeping my own bank account in credit. I might never have been subject to a public inquiry for financial incompetence - but if we were to apply a blanket ban on anyone who has shown themselves in any way to be "not good with money", then, arguably, I should be outlawed too.

Another time-honoured and associated debate is whether those who err elsewhere should be allowed to hold public office. You cannot be a decent Prime Minister, it is often claimed, if you are not a decent husband/wife/father/mother. And we are all susceptible to this argument - hence the 'public interest' defence quoted by newspapers when outing erring politicians.

But history suggests the opposite. David Lloyd George was a disaster as a husband, but a successful war leader. John F Kennedy could hardly be trusted to walk to the end of a corridor in the White House without betraying his wife, but he remains one of the most admired of US Presidents. And Margaret Thatcher's own daughter gives her a pretty poor write-up as a mother, yet the three-term Prime Minister's public career was celebrated last month with what was a state funeral in all but name.

So there can be no hard and fast rule. Each case on its merits, I say. Even a criminal conviction, I would suggest, should not be a bar to someone becoming a charity trustee.

I spend some of my time working with ex-offenders through the Longford Trust, which supports a dozen or so each year with mentoring and scholarships so they can go on to university as part of their rehabilitation. About 85 per cent of those on the programme go forward to get their degrees, but many struggle to find jobs afterwards. Their prison sentence might be spent and they might be able to provide evidence of reform and rehabilitation, but employers continue to treat them as if they are marked for life. A ban on them being trustees would be just another life sentence.

The third sector should not fall for such muddled and vengeful thinking. Every human being has the capacity to change. If we don't believe that, none of us would be working with charities - indeed, if we don't believe that, we are giving up on ourselves into the bargain.

The wisest people in this world are often those who have experienced adversity. A cushioned path through life, however much we appreciate and give thanks for it, can be a poor training for understanding others. But a rough start can contribute to a deeper appreciation of how lives can go off track, the particular pressures that contribute to taking a wrong turn and the measures that need to be in place - often provided by a charity - to avoid that happening in the future. In short, those with form often have plenty to teach us - especially organisations working in the field of penal reform, or troubled youngsters, or tackling the root causes of anti-social behaviour.

Indeed, I would argue that a former prisoner often has more to offer in such situations than the likes of me. Best of all, a trustee board should reflect both trajectories - those with a professional skill and an emotional, theoretical or academic engagement with the issue around which a third sector organisation works and campaigns, and those with hands-on experience. There's no beating a reality check when a group of the liberal middle classes get going round the trustee table.

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

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