Peter Stanford: Should we pay chairs?

The Charity Commission's decision to let the RNIB pay its chair highlights a difficult issue, says our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Should I be paid to chair a medium-sized charity that works in 11 centres nationwide? If I was being holier than thou, I'd step back in horror and avow that the idea had never occurred to me until I read that the Charity Commission had given the RNIB permission to pay its chair, Kevin Carey, for the three years of his term. But in truth, the question has slipped unbidden into my mind more than once in the past decade.

There are two logics at work here. There is marketplace logic, which has, for better or worse, captured our souls in recent years. Political parties, for example, all have high hopes of delivering public services at less cost after the election by cosying up to third sector organisations. If you follow that logic, being chair of a charity is no different from being chair of a company - except that chairs of companies are paid.

The Charity Commission also urges us consistently to be more professional as trustee bodies and to recruit people with the skills to help us manage what are often large, complex organisations, employing hundreds, even thousands of people.

But set against this is the logic of charity. We don't agree to sit on trustee boards for money, but because we believe in giving something back to society and placing our professional skills at the service of our communities, not just our bank accounts. Sorry if that sounds a bit pious, but it is a measure of how debased our secular, cynical society has become that such statements invite hollow laughter.

Having started out on that voluntary basis, we can hardly then turn around and start making market-place arguments that we should be paid. Yes, it can be tough. Yes, it can be time-consuming. Yes, we are often doing work that is very similar to that undertaken in the private sector. But we knew that when we took on the role. Arguing halfway through your tenure that you need to be paid is rather like an elected politician suggesting that we can dispense with elections in future.

I don't know all the details of the RNIB case, but there seem to be good reasons to see it as a one-off. Carey appears to have been paid from the start and made no bones about his wish to be compensated for his time. Furthermore, like every other disability charity, the RNIB wishes to have a chair who knows what he is talking about from the inside. Carey is blind.

There is an important point here. Many charities try and fail to find one of their 'target group' to act as chair. It probably takes more time and effort for someone with a spinal cord injury, for example, to live a full and independent life. For a wheelchair user, taking on the voluntary and time-consuming job of chairing a charity is too often just too big an ask.

But it might be that more people would be willing if they were paid, like Carey, £24,000 for a two-day week. Nor would I condemn them for accepting such a package, if the charity could afford it.

Is something lost when a charity has a paid chair? Not in terms of effectiveness, but perhaps in terms of the ethos of our sector. There is an implicit altruism in chairing a charity, and although payment does not necessarily negate this, it does raise questions.

It is important, in an age when so many professions are regarded as having their noses in the trough, that trustees are seen as trustworthy. That precious perception underpins all our fundraising. If it is lost, it will be gone forever.

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


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