What is the ultimate aim of trustees? This question, fired at me over a dinner table by an articulate and fierce forensic lawyer, caught me unawares. He had recently been invited to join a trustee board and was, in theory, picking my brains. It felt like picking apart my life.
I'm ashamed to admit that I struggled to provide an adequate answer. "To give the charity strategic direction and oversight" prompted only a raised eyebrow, as if to say "is that it?" How about "to represent the public interest in charities, literally as the one who holds in trust any monies raised from the general population?" Slightly better, I discerned, although it does, as was pointed out, sound a little bit self-aggrandising.
Thankfully, another guest rescued me from this modern inquisition, but the original question troubled me. You always come up with the right response hours too late, and it took me a good long while to dig down to this answer: to make myself and the charity with which I am associated redundant.
Great campaigners of history
A pipe dream? Probably - especially in the current climate, where the third sector seems to work ever more urgently to make good the deficiencies of the state, leaving too little time to address the question of why the state is failing in the first place. Some might argue that the state will always fail, so we will never be redundant, but some of the great campaigns of history - the abolition of child labour in this country, the eradication of certain diseases - were led by charitable individuals and organisations that persuaded the state to legislate and enforce that legislation. On a much smaller scale, specific abuses can be targeted and eliminated by concerted campaigning and lobbying of the state by charities.
But often it would require effort stretching so far into the future that no trustee, serving a three or six-year term, should ever be so foolish as to stake everything on eliminating the need that gave rise to their charity in the first place. Yet I still believe that, as trustees, the ultimate goal of making ourselves redundant should be present in the back of our minds when we sit around a table taking strategic decisions.
Of all the people involved in a charity, it's trustees who have no financial interest in the whole organisation carrying on in perpetuity: that is why we cannot be paid. Detachment enables us, occasionally, to raise our eyes to the far horizon.
In a practical sense, such a core principle will inform and shape some of the pragmatic decisions we have to take. A charity running services that intertwine with the NHS must balance the theory - that the NHS should offer (for example) proper rehabilitation, care, drug regimes and seamless transition into community-based provision - with the practice: that its resources aren't limitless and that charities can act as a safety net.
Pressure for reform
In the past, the way that trustee boards with which I've been involved have resolved this dilemma was to accept that people in need must be assisted, but simultaneously to make clear to those in the NHS who should be offering that assistance that any support the charity makes available is temporary. That way, the pressure for institutional reform remains active.
If we are to believe the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, welfare reforms being carried out by his fellow Catholic, the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, include a calculation that the state will, in some cases and for some periods, simply abandon individuals in need and leave them to rely on charities for necessities such as food.
If that is really the current direction of travel - and I have yet to read anyone rebut Nichols' accusations adequately - then the pressure on charity trustees to balance practice and theory will only increase. So we will need to keep in mind the goal, however remote, of one day making ourselves redundant.
Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years