Peter Stanford: We should all follow the example of Lady Tumim

The late Winifred Tumim used her connections to the advantage of the voluntary sector, says our columnist

It was Winifred Tumim who coined the phrase "mad chair disease", when she was leading an investigation by the Charity Commission and the NCVO into charity management in 1992.

She was referring to those chairs - and indeed trustees - who had only the vaguest idea of their true roles and responsibilities. It was a typical example of her forthright approach, her wit and her determination that our sector should be less village hall and more professional.

Many unkind words have been said about me as a chair - mostly behind my back, which is infinitely preferable to having them thrown in my face. But as far as I know - and please don't disabuse me - I have never been diagnosed with mad chair disease. It is surely a terminal complaint - for the chair, if not for the whole charity.

Winifred, who died suddenly at 73 earlier this month, has left behind a legion of friends and admirers in the charity world. And many monuments, too, not least the new atmosphere of purposeful management that developed as a result of that 1992 investigation. If the Government and opposition are now tripping over each other to claim they can solve poverty, unemployment and youth alienation by working with charities, we ultimately have Winifred to thank for cajoling the sector into adopting the standards of professionalism that makes us such attractive partners for politicians.

Her death has also caused me to reflect on whether that process of change has been wholly a good thing. There is, for example, a certain irony - which would not have been lost on Winifred - in the fact that, although she was one of the first to push the Charity Commission to take a more active role in modernising the sector, she was precisely the sort of person the commission is now so keen to replace on trustee boards in the name of diversity.

Would Winifred Tumim still be allowed to rise to a position where she could influence events in our sector today? She became chair of the RNID in 1985, just short of her 50th birthday. Middle age is almost as undesirable in a trustee right now as a criminal record for fraud and deception. Nor did Winifred ever lose her cut-glass accent - again, not a great recommendation when boards are under pressure to be inclusive in our multicultural, classless society. Moreover, she was white, Oxbridge-educated and married to a judge: the wonderful Stephen Tumim, who gave successive Tory Home Secretaries such a hard time as the Chief Inspector of Prisons.

Yet she was absolutely outstanding. She brought just the right combination of experience - two of her daughters were profoundly deaf - common sense and connections to the task. When Stephen was treated so appallingly by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary who sacked him and then refused to recommend him for a knighthood, Winifred was able to correct this injustice by privately lobbying the right people. Being well connected is fine if you use it for good, just reasons; it is only when it is simply a gravy train of nepotism and self-advancement that it becomes objectionable.

As a model for making the best use of the influence that happens to come your way, Winifred Tumim was exemplary, promoting the work of the NCVO and later navigating with skill, good sense and good humour the minefield that surrounded the work of the Government's Teenage Pregnancy Independent Advisory Group.

Ultimately, these were the qualities that landed her such challenging assignments. Connections might have helped a little at the start, but it was her personal strengths that propelled her forward. This is something for us all to keep sight of.

- Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster, chairman of Aspire and director of the Longford Trust

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