Viewpoint: Set a time limit on your trusteeship

Trust deeds must be more ruthless and enforce retirement dates for trustees and chairs.

I always promised myself I wouldn't stay on as chairman of Aspire, a charity that supports people with spinal injuries, for more than 10 years, or exceed my sell-by date - whichever came first. Technically, I have been as good as my word.

I stood down in 2001, just as double figures were looming. But somehow, a couple of years later, I allowed myself to be persuaded back. So I may not be the best person to talk about an issue that often crops up in the voluntary sector - setting time limits for trustees or trustee chairs, similar to the two-terms-and-out rule for the US President.

In principle, I'm all in favour of this. We all run out of steam and slip into our comfort zones faster than we might recognise. I believe we should be forced by trust deeds to anticipate this, rather than linger on once our best years are past us.

There is nothing more tragic than a loyal servant having to be guided unwillingly out of the door because he or she has, usually inadvertently, become more of a hindrance than an asset to a charity. It casts a shadow over all concerned and, more importantly, over the cause. It could be avoided if the trust deeds set a time limit and the trustee sticks to it. Theory and practice point one way but, as our legislators in Westminster always tell us, tough cases make bad laws. Here's one example.

I recently spent some time in Romania, reporting for a newspaper on the childcare facilities being run by the UK-based Fara Foundation, a charity that helps Romanian orphans. It has a full complement of Romanian staff working in the field and a chain of charity shops back here providing funding.

The foundation's chair is an extraordinary woman called Jane Nicholson, who has been involved for 16 years. Now, if the Charity Commission insisted on a two-terms-and-out clause in all constitutions, 16 years might seem to be stretching it a bit. Yet the reality is that this charity clearly continues to be animated and driven forward by its chair and her vision.

My answer to the question of whether there should be time limits to trusteeships must be a fudge, but with one vital caveat. My experience is that we still err too much on the side of trusting individual trustees to make up their own minds on retirement, whatever the trust deeds say.

I'd like to see a bit more enforcement - even if it involves getting old-timers like me to justify our existence every once in a while.

- Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, chairman of Aspire and and director of the Frank Longford Charitable Trust

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