Peter Stanford: Why I don't lose any sleep over the old boys' network

Friends of friends can become great trustees, says our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

John, as we'll call him, looks great - on paper.

Or on virtual paper, because nobody seems to bother posting hard copies any more. He is a friend of a friend, with a wealth of experience in the building industry, newly retired and keen to share his accumulated wisdom with a charity in the midst of a construction project.

His instincts are good. As any fundraiser will tell you, attracting donations for bricks and mortar is at the scaling Ben Nevis end of their workload, rather than the scaling Mount Everest aspect of trying to attract cash for running costs. So charities are often busy with building projects.

And, as I found in my Aspire days when we were in the midst of a £2m construction project with a board of trustees whose collective experience amounted to erecting a garden shed, adding a bit of building industry muscle is a great blessing.

Back then we were helped out by Peter, a friend of a friend who knew we were struggling to distinguish our RSJs from our MDFs. We almost bit his hand off. In short, it was chance. But that sort of serendipity doesn't happen too often. So how I am to help John, whose details are now in my inbox?

It highlights for me the dilemma of trustee recruitment. When you need one, they are impossible to find. When you don't, half a dozen suitable candidates come along.

The Charity Commission, of course, is very keen that the appointment of trustees is transparent, well-organised and ticks all sorts of boxes about diversity. There is a human resources manual to be written about it, no doubt. But not by me. The reality is messier and can be summarised briefly.

In an ideal world, all trustee vacancies would be advertised, those interested would apply and appointments would be made that took no account of who candidates knew.

There are several problems with this. Advertising costs, and many charities are struggling financially right now. Using a recruitment agency costs even more. So word-of-mouth can seem like an attractive, if elitist, option.

There is, though, a halfway house. If someone seeking a trustee role is genuinely interested in a particular charity, they should be reading its website. And since every charity has one, it can advertise trustee vacancies there free of charge. Not quite as effective in terms of reach as advertising elsewhere, but a sure-fire way to attract genuine enthusiasts.

That doesn't get round another problem. Most of us accept that a competitive interview process is part and parcel of obtaining paid employment, even if we'd prefer it wasn't.

I'm a lifelong freelance but have had a couple of brushes with interview panels. The worst was a BBC board. The game was for the five members to show each other how clever they were at humiliating me. I managed not to wilt, and was even offered the job, but the whole experience had been so appalling that I turned it down.

Many, though, will instinctively draw back from submitting themselves to such a grilling for a voluntary post. Applying the same rules to appointing trustees as are used in cut-throat industries can be self-defeating.

"I have to go through that to earn a living," is the obvious complaint. "Why should I go through it again when all I want to do is help?"

So we are thrown back on the old boys' network. I know I should be ashamed of it, but I just don't get as worked up about these informal networks as perhaps I ought to. It has brought some remarkable and remarkably effective people to the trustee boards I have sat on.

And it has saved a lot of energy and expense that are arguably better directed towards the task for many charities of keeping their heads above water.

Perhaps we should simply be thankful that there are people prepared to float their names in this informal network. I was at a charity that I admire enormously the other day. They'd asked me in about an "exciting proposal" they wanted to put to me.

Stupidly, I'd thought it might be about joining the board and had been mulling it over in my mind - good or bad fit? Enough time? Enough passion? All the standard sorts of questions.

Then it turned out to be something else altogether - but as I was leaving, I made a joke to the chief executive about what I had imagined we were going to be talking about. "Oh no," he said. "It's an awful waste of anyone good to put them on the board".

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

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