Stephen Pidgeon: Trustees should stand up and be counted

Our columnist says that backing staff is one of their key jobs

Stephen Pidgeon
Stephen Pidgeon

I'm sad about the recent carping in the press - executive salaries, ongoing whinges about face-to-face fundraising and so on. Then a week or two ago I came across a great little article by Rob White on the nfpSynergy website. He envisaged a group of 100 people in a room talking about charity. These people perfectly represented folk in the UK and he reported their conversation and the numbers who had opinions on various issues that we charity people all get hung up about.

You'll all have guessed, of course, that he was simply reporting nfpSynergy's ongoing research into UK attitudes to fundraising. But I was intrigued about the conversations that might have happened. Twenty-one of them (OK, 21 per cent!) said they'd volunteered with a charity in the last three months; 10 of them did it weekly. Bravo!

Thirty-three of them were happy to say they "trusted charities", up from the heady days of 2007 when money was pouring into charities. Only 22 of them would have put their hands up then. But the interesting figure for me was that these people thought charities should be spending at least 63 per cent of their income on the cause. Sadly, they believed the real percentage was less than 40 per cent.

Yet we know, because we're in the business, that about 80 per cent of income is actually spent on the cause: that's the figure Cancer Research UK claims on its current mailed appeals. The Oxfam figure always used to be 78 per cent. So in reality, it's a much more positive picture than the public even dream about. We should be so proud of what our sector is delivering through hard work and sheer professionalism.

We've been caught with our trousers down recently, but I'm annoyed that no trustees have been prepared to speak up for their senior staff. I'm acutely aware of this because, right now, I am applying for a trustee job. One of the things that puts me off is that, if I'm successful, I will become responsible for the administration of a charity with an income heading for £60m. That's a lot of money - yet I will be an unpaid volunteer. Surely no one expects me to take responsibility for the wise allocation of £60m if the amount I am allowed to spend on the chief executive's salary is the sort of sum that would recruit people with virtually no experience. I am responsible. I am a trustee. And the law says that I could lose my house if the administration is proved to be negligent.

So why do we hear so little from trustees? They hold the unique position of giving their support without payment, so they are like the very donors who are seeking clarity and robust explanation. Sadly, I think that many of them view their trusteeship as due recognition for a lifetime of contribution to society. Well, it's not. They have a key job to do and supporting their officers in public is one of them.

Stephen Pidgeon is a trustee of the Institute of Fundraising, a consultant and a teacher

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