Peter Stanford: I'm retiring as chair, and it is a proper goodbye

It's easy to stay for longer than you intend, says our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

When to stay and when to go has been a question I've debated in these pages many times - and in my head and heart many more. In theory, when it comes to trustees' tenure, I'm all for the same rule as for US presidents: a fixed-term period in office and no more than two bites at the cherry.

But when it comes to practice, I'm a hypocrite. Every time my fixed term as chair of the trustees at Aspire has come up for renewal, I have convinced myself that there is still more to do, and that I can make a contribution.

And - to enter a plea in mitigation - my fellow trustees have agreed. It is not quite a case of founder member syndrome, the blight of charities, because I wasn't there when it was founded - but as I approach 20 years with the charity, it is beginning to look like one.

There were plenty of reasons, good and bad, for staying so long, but that is for another time. Suffice to say, the trustees' meeting in September will be my last - although I will continue my Third Sector column. "Why are you standing down?" a colleague asked me recently. I said: "Well, after 20 years..." And she replied: "Enough said."

There is a mixture of emotions, not unlike those experienced when watching your children fly the nest. However convinced I am the time is right, there has been a tear in my eye as I walk down familiar corridors for the last time, past plaques commemorating events that I took part in, and photographs of colleagues and friends who did much more for the charity than I ever have, but who are no longer here to see how it has grown.

But there is also a calm conviction that it will manage perfectly well without me.

One of life's lessons is that no one is indispensable. It's human nature to think we are the exception to the rule: we need to get over it. Perhaps if we grasped that at the start, we would be less inclined to outstay our welcome.

One lesson that I am trying to take to heart now is how to leave well. Too often, retiring chairs or founders are persuaded - or persuade themselves - that they still need to keep half an eye on things, remain on the trustee board, keep responsibility for a corner of their former portfolios or, worst of all, become consultants.

Remember Margaret Thatcher and her loose talk, once she had left Downing Street, about being a backseat driver? That did enormous damage to her party, ultimately contributing to making it unelectable for years, and cast a cloud over her legacy.

So mine is a proper goodbye. The affection, of course, doesn't vanish. To extend the extra child metaphor, you don't stop caring deeply about what happens at the charity that has been so much a part of your life for so long the day you walk out of the boardroom. How could you? That, surely, is the point about our chosen causes. They are written on our hearts: that's why they bring out the best in us.

The challenge for those on trustee boards is to find a way of giving expression to that link when colleagues depart - through purely honorary offices that encapsulate that continuing emotional bond, the occasional invitation on high days and holidays to celebrate new achievements and, most of all, the maintenance of some sort of open channel with departing trustees, because we forget the past at our peril.

The past has shaped the present, which in turn will shape the future. Continuity, evolution rather than revolution: this is what trustees - past, present and future - represent.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, chair of Aspire and director of the Longford Trust

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