Peter Stanford: For trustees, the hard work is ultimately worth it

A 35th anniversary party for my old charity showed that the true joy of being a trustee is seeing the difference those years of service made

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

It is easy to sound a bit gloomy about the challenges of being a trustee. It is, of course, a serious business, with the potential to affect many lives, for better or worse. But sometimes it is good to step back and realise quite how lucky we are to do what we do.

I’ve just been to the 35th anniversary party of the founding of Aspire, the national spinal injuries charity. I am not quite long enough in the tooth to have been there at the start in 1983, but still managed to clock up two decades as chair of trustees somewhere in between. Flagrant disregard of Charity Commission guidance, I know, but it seemed the right thing to do at the time given circumstances that need not bother us now.

It is, however, six years – almost seven – since I stepped down, so going back to the 35th party was a bit like meeting my grandchildren, or as I imagine it will one day be. All pleasure, no responsibility, enormous pride and such a strong, instinctive feeling of connection.

There was, as well, the chance to wallow in a bit of nostalgia when one of the founders got up to recall the early days. But there was a more serious point to that too, because charities have to be anchored in an original vision that might evolve but must continue to fasten them to something substantial. If they bob about from thing to thing, they risk floating away.

And then there was a raft of statistics produced on those PowerPoint displays that I usually loathe to show how the fledgling projects I remember from my time there have now grown into full-fledged, life-changing, life-enhancing programmes. As I looked and listened, I couldn’t help remembering the trustee meetings where those ideas were first debated, where we argued about whether to go down that road at all and where siren voices warned that we were heading for disaster if we went ahead. And here, after all that pain, was evidence not that some of us were right, but of something much more important – that the struggle and debate and sleepless nights that go with being a trustee when it comes to hard choices is ultimately worth it, because it is the process by which we produce lasting good.

There were lots of familiar faces in the party room. To my eyes, we all looked unchanged, but then I am too vain to wear my glasses so the world is usually a bit fuzzy round the edges and can easily tip into rose-tinted. Among the newer faces was my successor but one as chair of trustees. As we talked, I reminisced and she was polite enough not to look bored. Any advice, she asked, probably to change the subject.

It came out without me really thinking about it, but on reflection I still believe it to be right. There will be occasions in the life of the charity, I said to her, when the going gets tough. The temptation, at such times, is to think "I’m a volunteer: I have a day job/family/mortgage and I just don’t need this level of stress and responsibility", and therefore to look for ways to compromise, back down or kick difficult things into the long grass. But sometimes – and this is exactly where you need judgement and courage – you have to take a stand, add to that long list of responsibilities and demands on your time, and embrace the decision that you know in your gut is right, is in line with the founding vision and will deliver real progress. You might get it wrong, in which case it could mean taking the rap, but that is not reason enough to demur. Without a willingness as a charity chair to give a clear lead in tough times, the really important things that continue to resonate 10, 20 or even 35 years later will never be achieved.

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

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