Peter Stanford: We risk putting trustees through too much anguish

These are testing times for trustees, but do we expect too much of them?

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

These are testing times for trustees. We’ve all been on our tiptoes of late over dancing to the tune of the new and wide-ranging General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into force on 25 May, not least because of the scale of the sanctions that are threatened if we don’t make sure our charities comply with them. The initials GDPR have become as much a feature as the date of the next meeting on our trustee board agendas, and each time the subject is raised there is a chorus of half-exasperated, half-worried sighs.

Then there is the ongoing and very public spectacle of Save the Children’s trustees being hauled over the coals for decisions taken, and not taken, when dealing with serious complaints about sexual harassment by senior staff. The board is accused of placing the reputation of the charity over the welfare of employees.

When you spell it out that plainly, it sounds like a no-brainer. Of course you protect the welfare of all employees in order to protect the good name of the charity. But listening to the news reports of what allegedly took place around that board table has certainly given me pause to think, and to worry. What would I have done in their place? In the heat of the moment, would my responsibilities have seemed so crystal clear? Do the boards I sit on have sufficient expertise on hand to ensure we would make the right decision, not just on the core principle but also on the technicalities of carrying through that decision?

Together these two sagas are a stark reminder of what we have taken on by agreeing to be trustees. I would never want to put anyone off, but experience suggests that you are lucky as a long-serving trustee if you haven’t been though a dark night of the soul and wondered "what on earth am I doing this for?"

Mine came with a colossal breakdown in trust between two antagonistic factions that seemed to develop out of nowhere on the trustee board I chaired. I simply hadn’t seen it coming. Foolishly, with hindsight, I thought I was doing everything by the book, each contested decision carefully discussed, minuted and, when there was a seed of doubt, checked with lawyers. But still it all burst into flames and got very personal indeed.

The jibe that I recall hurting the most – and this was in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, when the Prime Minister’s name was dirt – was that I was just another Tony Blair in my high-handedness and skewed presentation of the facts. The board agreed to commission an outside report on the whole episode. I can still remember sitting at the breakfast table on the morning I was to due to explain my conduct to what was effectively judge and jury, and wondering how on earth volunteering my time, knowledge and goodwill had got me into such a place. All I wanted was to put back time and say no to being a trustee.

So I can begin to imagine how those Save the Children trustees must be feeling now. Their ordeal is much more public, on a vastly bigger scale and the details very different. But still it comes back to that same root question: why put yourself through being a trustee when it can cause such anguish and anxiety?

In my case, the independent report found in my favour. The resignations that followed sorted out the board breakdown, albeit at the cost of fractured relationships that have never healed, and – bruised though we were – on we went as trustees. I have never quite forgotten it, though. Did it make me a better trustee? I’m not sure, but it certainly opened my eyes to the potential price of signing up to sit around the table. If the benefits are immediately obvious, the drawbacks take longer to emerge.

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

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