Peter Stanford: It's nothing to laugh about: job-shares are a great idea

Chairing a charity could be a two-person job, says our columnist Peter Stanford

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

There were quite a few schoolboy-type guffaws when Caroline Lucas, the Green Party's leader and sole MP, recently suggested that MPs could have job-shares.

Oh, it is much too difficult a job to split, protested some (male) MPs, no doubt forgetting that a good many backbenchers manage to carry on a career in the City, in law or in business at the same time as representing their constituents and drawing a full parliamentary salary.

Quite disgracefully, others (again mainly men) treated Lucas's proposal as a bit of a joke. It was "feminism gone mad", they said. These scoffers are, no doubt, the same people who bang on about family values and the importance of ensuring greater involvement by both parents in the lives of growing children.

As a stay-at-home-sometimes dad, I believe Lucas was making a good point. Job-shares potentially allow both mothers and fathers the chance to have a hands-on role in their children's upbringing. Yes, job-shares are hard to set up: there often needs to be an overlap day when both post-holders are at work to avoid crossed wires. But once established, in my experience, they can work well for both employers and employees.

The charitable sector has a better record than Parliament in facilitating job-shares, but then, that wouldn't be hard. I've recently found myself wondering whether the good example provided by job-sharing employees at charities might also translate to board level.

At present, I chair one board and am vice-chair of another. When both my paid day job and home life are unusually busy, the former can make it all seem too much, and I conclude that trying to combine a career with being the chair of a voluntary organisation is impossible at this stage in my life.

With the vice-chair role, I often feel like an onlooker, gazing from the beach as the chair sinks under the strain of keeping up with her responsibilities while also having a professional life. But I've little spare time myself to stretch out a helping hand.

With the increasing professionalisation of the third sector - a good thing, don't get me wrong - there has also been an additional burden of responsibility placed on volunteer trustees, and particularly on volunteer chairs. And to top it all, the Charity Commission has told us yet again how young people are under-represented on trustee boards.

I just want to shout "get real". When the commission is busy heaping more and more onus for ensuring good governance on the shoulders of volunteer trustees and chairs, is it any wonder that the young, often utterly absorbed in building careers and paying off their student loans in these tough economic times, decide they can give charity boards a miss?

This is where a job-share could help. I'm floating the thought here, but how would it be if that young blood could be tempted into trusteeship or even chairship on a job-share basis with an older hand? Partly mentoring them, partly giving them a taster, partly easing the pressure on us over-stretched middle-agers - it sounds a like a win-win situation.

Can you really job-share being a charity chair? I don't see why not. At Aspire, we have a brilliant vice-chair, and between us we have effectively pooled the role of chair and vice-chair. Without him, I'd be beaten by it. He'll have to answer whether the same is true the other way around.

Yes, there are plenty of potential pitfalls. What if job-share chairs disagree? Or if the young blood takes a different view from the older hand? It need not necessarily lead to meltdown. After all, there is a board of other trustees to decide between the two. But I can't help feeling the idea might be worth exploring further. If you are doing it already, please do let the rest of us know how it's working out.

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

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