Peter Stanford: Want to be a better trustee? Then get more involved

More trustee visits and less time spent around the board table would do everyone connected with a charity good, says our columnist

Peter Stanford, director of the Longford Trust
Peter Stanford, director of the Longford Trust

I'm of the age group that tends to regard Twitter with a mixture of bemusement and contempt.

Why would I want to read so-brief-as-to-be-inane tweets by people I don't know when I can have proper conversations face-to-face with flesh-and-blood friends and colleagues?

Why would I want to 'follow' charities that I admire on Twitter - as the sign-offs on their emails implores - when they have websites and newsletters that use sentences and grammar to convey rounded pictures?

You can tell my 50th birthday isn't that far off, which, as the Charity Commission never ceases to remind us, makes me relatively young for a trustee - indeed, it's one of the few places I can still recapture that almost lost feeling of youth.

But a recent encounter with the government's digital inclusion champion, Martha Lane Fox, who is due to give our annual Longford Lecture, persuaded me that I was letting my technophobia get in the way of a truer evaluation of the value and potential of e-devices.

Indeed, on closer examination, there are pearls to be found in the Twitter-sphere. For more substantial fare, I checked out Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society - minforcivsoc in Twitter-speak, though that is still a bit of a mouthful.

An exchange between the charity champion and one of his Twitter followers set me thinking. Hurd had been on the road visiting yet another charity or foundation - part of his brief, he reflected. But a tweet urged him to do less looking and more thinking about policy. Quite wrong, the minister replied. Looking made him think by connecting him with reality.

The dilemma this little to-and-fro highlights, I reflected, applies equally well to trustees as to government ministers. The traditional expectation of trustees is that they turn up for meetings, usually after office hours, sit round a table, debate, deliberate and make decisions - thinking, rather than looking.

Yes, the time-honoured model has been amended recently, and trustees mix more with the teams at their charities; but the change has not always been as radical or as fast as we might like to think. Try asking charity staff how familiar they are with the trustees. Better still, ask them to identify the trustees in a photographic identity parade.

How might we improve? Well, we could learn from other sectors. I'm a school governor and we have just had a training session to prepare the governing body for the new Ofsted inspection regime. And, yes, I know that is demonstrably absurd. Most of what we learnt was about saying the right thing and producing a paper trail to show that we had thought the right thing, rather than about any incentive actually to do the right thing - but that's another matter.

What I did like was the brownie points that Ofsted now gives for governors who demonstrate their interest and involvement by making visits and participating in aspects of the school day.

You can take this too far - we don't want trustees sitting in on meetings so often they become like the bank manager in the cupboard in those old TV commercials.

And I should stress to the overstretched and soon-to-be much smaller Charity Commission that I am not proposing it institutes an Ofsted-style inspection regime to judge trustee bodies as outstanding, good, satisfactory or failing. Taking my cue from the tweeting Hurd, I think a few more trustee visits, a bit more looking and a little less time round the board table would do everyone connected with a charity good - trustees, staff and, ultimately, beneficiaries.

A connection with reality, as the minister puts it. Or leading by walking around, in the terminology of business manuals that are probably even older than me.

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

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