Peter Stanford: Founder members sometimes have to go

The hardest choice any trustee must make is to protect their organisation's work over and above the people who started it, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Newspapers have long been keen on columns called My Favourite ..., My Best ... or even My Greatest ... As the digital revolution transforms papers' online offerings, such lists have become all the rage. "Choose an unusual number," I was recently instructed when commissioned to compile a list of my favourite olive oils. "Five?" I asked innocently. "Oh no," came the reply. "Five, six and 10 are old hat. Try seven, 11 or 13." Now that really ranks among my greatest challenges. Are there 13 distinctive olive oils? Certainly not in my kitchen.

In this same spirit, I thought I'd tackle that hardy perennial, "my biggest challenges as a charity chair". The list stretches to only two. The first was when I didn't get on with the chief executive, which is potentially fatal for any charity – although, thankfully, no one else got on with her either, so she left fairly promptly. The second was a bad case of founder-member syndrome. That wasn't so easily cured.

For August's edition of Third Sector, I interviewed Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. He spoke about how too many Church of England charities had tried to move away from their roots and their church-sounding names, only to regret it later. His point was that charities forget their history and original ideals at their cost. And who are the best guardians of that founding ideal? The founder members.

Consequently, many of us who get into charity trusteeship bend over backwards to ensure that the founders stay involved as wise counsellors, keepers of the flame and a sure way of staying true to our principles. But it can backfire disastrously, as I discovered to my cost. The ultimate, and hardest, choice any charity chair must make is to protect the organisation's work, not the people who do it, did it or even started it. The cause is always more important. And so, in my bitter experience of founder-member syndrome, the founder member eventually had to depart.

It sounds clear with hindsight, but that wasn't how it felt at the time. So many of our best charities evolve from one person's dynamism, charisma and vision. Isn't that worth keeping, even if compromises have to be made? That's what I figured. But I was wrong.

Since my ordeal by fire, I've met other chairs who have been in the same position. I got off lightly by comparison with most. Some had ended up in court in order to wrench control from a founder who was clearly no longer up to the task of running the show. Others faced years of personal attacks – "you're no better than Tony Blair" was among the cruellest jibes I have heard reported – and all admitted to moments of profound self-doubt. Is this the right thing? Am I the problem? But - and here's something to give us all a bit of backbone – having seen it through, none of us had any regrets.

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

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