Regulation with Rosie: Patrons

The Charity Commission's Rosie Chapman on how patrons differ from trustees.

Question: what do model Nell McAndrew, actor and former X Factor contestant Stephanie Beecham and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, all have in common? Answer: they are all charity patrons. Question two: what is the difference between a patron and a trustee? If you don't know the difference to that second question, you are not alone: it is something that is often misunderstood - by the press, by charity members and by trustees.

I know people reading this column are informed about the role of charity trustees. Trustees have the ultimate responsibility for running charities; they decide its operational and strategic priorities: the buck stops with them. Trustees struggling to explain their role to the uninitiated could do worse than point people in the direction of the Charity Commission's guidance, The Essential Trustee.

Patrons, on the other hand, represent charities but don't have the responsibilities of running them. Chosen carefully and used astutely, they can be real assets. The NCVO, among others, produces useful guidance to help trustees who are seeking patrons.

But choosing someone who isn't prepared to put in sufficient time, do research or use their contacts on charities' behalf can be a real liability. One of the reasons why awareness of breast cancer has risen so much among younger women is the care that breast cancer charities have taken to recruit as their patrons media-friendly younger celebrities who often have experience of the disease. Their experience and fluency mean there is no credibility gap in their charity work.

But patrons need to be clear about the parameters of their responsibility. They don't and can't, for example, have a say in how funds are spent. Trustees have responsibilities that they can't legally abrogate.

- Rosie Chapman is executive director of policy and effectiveness at the commission.

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