One quality we should look for in trustees has been on my mind of late: courage. All charities do necessary work, but we will all be aware of an informal hierarchy of causes, certainly in the eyes of donors and the public, and probably among potential trustees. Children and animal causes score exceptionally well. Medical research and poverty do OK. At the tougher end of the spectrum are less instantly popular causes such as prison reform.
To take on a role in this last area involves steeling yourself for the inevitable barbed comments. I'm the director of the Longford Trust for Prison Reform and gave a lunchtime talk about our work a while back to a well-heeled group of Rotarians, most from the financial sector.
I thought I'd made a decent case that, with targeted support, the lives of people who have been inside can be turned around. "I know how you could cut reoffending rates," one of the audience piped up at question time. I knew what was coming. "Keep them all in for longer. Better still, don't let them out." That earned a round of applause.
Not pleasant, and probably my fault in how I made the case; but I'm not inviting sympathy or claiming courage on my own behalf. This was par for the course. What brought courage to the front of my mind was the recent presentation, at the Houses of Parliament, of the annual Robin Corbett Award for Prison Rehabilitation, established in memory of the campaigning Labour MP who died in 2012, and run by the Prison Reform Trust.
It went to the Safer Living Foundation. Based at HMP Whatton in Nottinghamshire, where all 841 inmates are convicted sex offenders (70 per cent offended against children), the foundation has pioneered a new approach to rehabilitation, working with probation staff, academics, police and, in particular, the charity Circles UK.
It takes a bit more, I'd suggest, than an urge "to put something back" to volunteer as a member of the board of an organisation such as Circles UK, which works with sex offenders. The widespread popular perception – egged on, I'm afraid, by some of our political leaders – is that sex offenders are in a category all of their own, can never be rehabilitated and should therefore be treated as pariahs ever after. To join the board of an organisation that challenges this idea – Circles UK has quietly produced an 83 per cent reduction in reoffending rates among the sex offenders it takes on – requires courage.
You will face not just the ill-informed barbs of Rotarians, but a whole added dimension to trusteeship of standing up for what you believe is right in the face of public scepticism. Of course, it's not just the board members, but also the staff and volunteers. And whatever hostility they might encounter is nothing compared to that directed at the released former offenders themselves. But it still goes beyond the traditional view of a trustee as champion of a charity.
Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years