Peter Stanford: Numeracy is a key skill for trustees of charities

Yet another fraud against a charity shows why trustees need to brush up on their basic maths and grasp of finances

It is the sort of news story that gives charities a bad name and makes trustees look like idiots. Peter Ralphs, the 69-year-old former chair of the Shropshire branch of the RSPCA, has been jailed for three years for stealing £184,000.

The charity, which is independent from the national RSPCA, typically has an annual income of about £250,000. This means that during the two years in which his thieving took place more than a third of its income was filched. Why didn’t anyone on the trustee board notice?

There are many things that trustees must do. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has recently published a set of admirable ethical principles that must be upheld, including such ideals as putting beneficiaries first, integrity, openness and providing a safe environment in which to work.

Watching the money probably comes under integrity, but I’d like to see it spelt out more boldly. How about: "All trustees – or at least the majority around the board table – must be numerate and, if they aren’t, should be required to do a basic course in reading a column of figures."

If I am sounding arrogant and demanding, then I come at this as a repentant
sinner, someone who, in years gone by at trustee meetings, would switch off when it came to anything financial. I had other things to bring to the discussions, I thought. Indeed, that same complacency can be seen more widely in our society. No one would announce happily that they couldn’t read, but I’m always hearing people say, as if it is as natural as being left-handed, "I’m rubbish at maths".

As a society, we almost celebrate our lack of maths skills and – on the flip side – tend to regard those who thrive in studying further maths as a bit odd. What changed in my case was that I was given a jolt, and thankfully a benign one. I spent a year in my work for a national newspaper running a campaign called "Make Britain Count", which involved me interviewing 101 experts about just what a basic life skill maths really is, and what a disadvantage the 17 million adults in the UK with poor numeracy are labouring under. And I was converted.

So now – and I’ll be honest, I still get a buzz from the achievement when I can reconcile the books of the small charity I run with the bank balances – I’m not one who abstains, switches off or places blind trust in others when it comes to accounts that will go out with my signature (among others) on them. It really isn’t hard, I can promise you. Perhaps just a little humiliating when you start out, but no more than is good for the soul.

Those who regularly read this column will know that there are certain fundamental skills that I believe all trustees must have. Common sense is essential. Willingness, when needed, to roll up their sleeves. And empathy. But right up there, too, has to be basic maths.

We’re not talking grasping Fermat’s Last Theorem here. Just the essentials, defined by the campaigning organisation National Numeracy as being able to understand percentages, spot best-buy deals in the supermarket and manage your money. Or sufficient to know, when asked, if you are paid £9 an hour and you are given a 5 per cent pay rise, what your new hourly rate would be.

Struggling? In a recent survey, almost a quarter of adults across the UK were unable to answer that question correctly, even with the option of using a calculator, so you are not alone. But to function as a trustee, you have to be able to solve it, because that will put you on a level to spot when a third of your charity’s money has gone AWOL.

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

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