Peter Stanford: Trustee pay threatens the values that define charities

Paying trustees would foster an unfair system, says our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

I have never been paid as a trustee, but I learned this week that I am going to have a meeting room named after me to mark 20 years of service.

I have to say that it feels like a very good deal indeed, even though I have stood down and will no longer be attending meetings in the said room and thus basking in my own reflected glory.

But after all those long evenings spent sat in there, trawling through the accounts or battling over some insurmountable issue, that plaque is still appreciated.

I can't quite claim I always loved sitting in what is now the Stanford Room, but being paid to be there wouldn't have shifted the balance between pleasure, frustration and boredom one iota.

One rule for the big boys

I'm with the two-thirds majority who told the volunteering network site that they oppose Lord Hodgson's recommendation that charities with annual incomes of more than £1m should be allowed to pay their trustees without seeking Charity Commission approval.

I hate the whiff about this suggestion of one rule for the big boys and another for the rest.

Add to that the fact that any arbitrary threshold inevitably invites manipulation.

Think about it. You are the chair of a charity whose income is in the upper £900,000s. Why not recruit a couple of well-heeled trustees who can put £50k each into the pot? Then, hey presto, you can all be paid.

An extreme scenario, but human nature can be extreme. Best not to give it the opportunity to show its darker side.

There was a hint of that big-boy nonchalance about Stephen Bubb's comment on the proposal, reported in these pages: "For some small charities, pay would not be appropriate (presumably he means because they are too poor) but some charities take the view that they would like to pay - why should they be stopped from doing so?" To me this sounds uncomfortably like: "We can afford it, so why not?"

Allowing payments on this basis creates a two-tier system, a Premier League and a Fourth Division, or whatever misleading name football's blighted lower levels now trade under. Does it matter, if that is the economic reality of our sector? Perhaps I'm old-fashioned or sentimental, but I think it does.

One of the reasons that charities in general inspire such confidence among the public is that they share a common approach. You know where you are with a charity. Start bringing in different regulations based on size and you destroy that essential solidarity that both binds us together and elevates us.

Worse, introduce grades of trustee - paid and unpaid - and you import the idea that the guardians of good practice aren't actually there for the right reasons. Among all the insults that have been hurled at me over getting on for three decades of trusteeship, no one has ever been able to say "you're only in it for the money".

Implement Lord Hodgson's recommendations and we will all start hearing that insult or insinuation from time to time. The distinction between the big boys and the rest will be lost on most critics. We will all be tarred with the same brush.

Fair rewards

I'm not opposed to trustees being rewarded for their time and effort.

Expenses are routinely available and should be claimed more often. Long-servers can be put up for a gong or, better still, have a room named after them. But how do you start putting a price on their commitment without somehow demeaning it?

There are those occasions when, as a trustee, you meet the donors. "Thank you for coming to this fund-raising dinner - it will help pay for me to come to board meetings" will not be much of a sales pitch. At the moment, I can attend with a clear conscience. Call me precious or backward-looking, but I'd prefer to keep it that way.

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

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