Recognise reality and pay trustees at large charities, says charity lawyer

Philip Kirkpatrick of Bates Wells Braithwaite says the existing governance model is broken and proposes a model of 'assured unitary governance'

Philip Kirkpatrick
Philip Kirkpatrick

The governance model used by large charities is "broken" and they should adopt a new approach that would involve paying their trustees, a prominent charity lawyer has suggested.

Philip Kirkpatrick, head of charity and social enterprise at the law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite, but speaking in a personal capacity, told an event at the University of Liverpool’s London campus yesterday that the existing model of charity governance for larger charities was "not fit for purpose" and needed reform.

He proposed instead a model of "assured unitary governance" that would help large, complex charities meet the demands on them from regulators and the public.

This would include having a unitary, paid board of trustees comprising the charity’s chief executive and other senior executives, plus a paid chair and a senior independent trustee, Kirkpatrick said.

He added that an "assurance board" made up of qualified and experienced volunteers could have powers to steer the charity’s mission and manage conflicts of interest, but would not become full trustees.

Kirkpatrick said this model would represent a fairer and more realistic approach to governance than the existing model of volunteer trustees running larger charities.

No legislative changes would be needed to implement the assured unitary governance model, Kirkpatrick said, and it could work for any charity with paid staff.

His proposed new model, he said, also recognised that the public could not have "unrealistically high expectations" of charity trustees of large and complex charities and at the same time expect them to be part-time volunteers.

The concept of salaried trustees has been a controversial one in the sector for many years, with some arguing it would help to professionalise and diversify trusteeship among larger, national charities.

Others have said it would undermine the voluntary ethos at the heart of the UK charity sector.

Kirkpatrick said: "No one can look at what is demanded of part-time, unpaid, non-executive trustees of complex operational charities and say it is fair or appropriate that those trustees are held to account for everything the charity does. It is time to recognise realities and offer a new model.

"The assured unitary governance model offers a fairer and more realistic approach to governance. I hope it sparks a wider, honest debate about the realities and about public and regulatory expectations of charity trustees."

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