Peter Stanford: Should we recruit trustees for the size of their wallets?

Offering up a trusteeship is not the best way to engage wealthy donors, says our columnist

It was many moons ago - as the mirror reminds me every morning - that I was a teenager standing in a shopping precinct in Birkenhead rattling tins for some Catholic charity or other. I can't remember its name, but in those less enlightened times, my Catholic school only 'did' Catholic charities.

What I do recall, however, is realising for the first time that the people most able to give were not always the most generous, and that those with little in their purses sometimes emptied them into my tin. Shoppers emerging from Beatties department store - which qualifies as the better end of Birkenhead - would brush past my outstretched arm, while those leaving TJ Hughes - the forerunner of Poundland - would stop and give so generously that I occasionally found myself trying to stop them.

My observations hardly count as a scientific study, but a survey in Wealth Bulletin has now provided something more substantial. It shows that a quarter of UHNWs - people of ultra-high net worth (the super-rich) - feel that giving to charity is not for them.

The findings reminded me of another, more recent encounter. Last summer, I attended a charity golf day, organised by the friends and family of a recently deceased captain of industry to raise funds for a cause close to his widow's heart. As we tucked into our overcooked roast beef - an ordeal to rival 18 holes of golf on a hot day - I found my treasury of sporting chat as empty as the RBS coffers. My fellow diners were all evidently well-heeled: some spectacularly so, to judge by the array of vehicles and chauffeurs in the car park. So I asked the woman next to me, as she fought with a roast potato that was doing a good impression of a golf ball, whether she was involved with any charities.

"Yes," she replied, and launched into a long monologue about how she wasn't a great one for lending a helping hand, how people had to make their own way in life as she had, but how she had been persuaded to become a trustee of a charity with an admirable cause that had better remain nameless. As we chatted, it became pretty clear that she had nothing much in the way of skills to offer the charity in question, but rather liked the label 'trustee'. It does, we agreed, have a nice, solid, worthwhile ring to it in an age when other formerly well-regarded titles have become tarnished. I assumed the charity had asked her to join the board as a way of accessing either her wallet or those of her circle.

Perhaps I am misjudging, but as a chair of trustees over the years, I have come across plenty of people with similar motives. I'm not going to come over all holier-than-thou about this. It is always worth considering ways to engage wealthy donors - the greater good and all that - but it is a question of finding the right way of involving them. Offering up a trusteeship is not, I believe, the right route. Commitment, engagement and enthusiasm are what is required, not a cheque book.

However, on the long drive back I found myself asking if my own conscience was clear. I am - without being anywhere near a UHNW sort - probably closer to the Beatties shoppers than the TJ Hughes clientele. Do I give commensurately, or do I use the time I donate as a trustee as an excuse to penny-pinch? The honest truth is yes.

Trusteeship is, of course, a form of giving - of time, energy, expertise - but it shouldn't rule out the other sort of giving if it is possible. It is not an easy balance to strike, and I'm struggling with it right now, but it is not one we can ignore.

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

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