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Being a trustee should not be a comfortable job #TrusteesWeek

By Guest contributor 12 November 2014

Peter Wheeler is one of NPC’s founding trustees and was Chair of the board from 2010 to 2012.

I first became a charity trustee when I was still a banker at Goldman Sachs. I gave a little money to an organisation that was doing extraordinary (to my mind) frontline work, and got sucked in. I think I helped the organisation a bit, and I certainly learned a lot. I also woke up more than once in a cold sweat at four in the morning, and bore months of weekly trustee meetings with insolvency advisors in attendance. I don’t recommend it; but it certainly sharpens the mind.

In this capacity, I watched aghast as a big global organisation with royal patronage raised £1million in minutes from City supporters at a gala dinner. The tragedy was, that with the possible exception of the member of the royal household who was guest of honour, I could not find ANYONE in the room who had the least idea of what £1m achieved within that organisation.

Meanwhile, down the road we were struggling to pay salaries.

This was one of the experiences that led to me to sit down with Gavyn Davies and imagine what is now NPC. Another was David Robinson of Community Links asking me a very simple but far from trivial question: ‘I’ve been in this business all my life, Peter, but can you help me figure out what really works, when I’ve got an extra £5 in the cookie jar at the end of the week?’

Being a trustee should not be a comfortable job. If it is, you should get out. Either you are trying to keep an organisation alive against the odds (and, in my view, the odds are deeply stacked against frontline charities for a number of reasons); or if you are lucky (or smart) enough to be sitting on the board of an endowed or otherwise wealthy foundation—one that is likely to be around at the end of the week, indeed, at the end of the next century—you should be asking yourself some of the following far more difficult questions:

  1. Have we set the bar high enough?
  2. On what basis are we holding on to our capital rather than investing it in organisations that are known to be effective?
  3. Why do we think we should restrict this grant, implicitly believing that our grants office can better manage the programme than the charity we are purportedly ‘supporting’?
  4. Why do we commit for three years rather than one year or 15?
  5. Why do we insist on a grant application unique to us and monitoring and evaluation reports ditto, rather than teaming up with other grant-makers to simplify the process and relieve some of the burden on the good people busting a gut on the frontline?
  6. Is it more important that we are around and in good financial shape when I step down as a trustee, or that the problem(s) we are in business to address are on their way to being consigned to history? How do we make that trade-off?
  7. Would we win any awards for our effectiveness as a grant giving organisation, judged by the highest standard? How do we know?

These are tough questions. If you like the idea of rising to the challenge of trying to answer them, please step forward. If you don’t, then join a public company board and have an easier life.

  • This is one of a series of blogs discussing issues affecting trustees as part of Trustees’ Week 2014 ; please do leave a comment or share on social media to add to the debate.