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Trustees seek gold

06 Sep 2012 Voices

Ian Allsop debates a proposal made back in the mists of time, during the pre-Olympics era.

Ian Allsop debates a proposal made back in the mists of time, during the pre-Olympics era.

There are times when it would be much easier to pay someone else to write things for me. A charity trustee perhaps. But currently that is only allowed if permission is granted by the Columnist Commission.

As I plough on unsupported, the single greatest event in the history of ever has just ended. The Olympics. A generation has been inspired far beyond a level that present funding and provision can support; the BBC has enough clips of sporting heroism to set up a dedicated montage channel; and Dave and Boris have been at the forefront of efforts to ensure that bandwagon-jumping becomes a competitive sport in every state school.

There are worries that no one will know what to do with themselves now it is over; especially the PM who will be at a complete loose end without any free sport to attend. Which might be why he immediately busied himself setting up an Olympic-legacy volunteering charity (the 479th new government volunteering initiative of the last 20 years by my calculations).

A different age

This will build on the ‘feel-good factor’ (a term always guaranteed to have the opposite effect on me) of the games, and the tremendous spirit and dedication of the volunteers. Because, pre-Olympics, no one volunteered for anything and would only do things if paid to do so. They certainly didn’t expect medals of thanks. Just don’t mention Big Society.

That all seems a different age ago now, but it is worth remembering that at the fag-end of the pre- Olympic era Lord Hodgson’s review of the Charities Act was published, in which payment and the voluntary principle were very much to the fore.

One interesting point in Hodgson’s wisdom was support for the Charity Commission having the ability to fine charities for the late submission of accounts.

Improving compliance in this area was pursued vigorously by the current editor of Charity Finance in his previous life and is one he continues to support strongly. I should know as I get fined for late submission of copy; so I had better crack on with my main point.

It was Hodgson’s suggestion that large charities be able to pay trustees if they wished, without asking the Charity Commission. This suggestion didn’t so much stir up a hornet’s nest as fire a rocket into it. This is by no means a new debate and at its core is the cherished voluntary principle. There is no evidence that an ability to pay board members will suddenly open up a new pool of worthy candidates, and no one seems to be calling for it. Oh, except for Acevo, a long-time supporter of the paid trustee. It was all over Hodgson’s recommendation like a cheap suit.

Acevo has long argued that paying trustees would probably improve levels of governance. While far from perfect, standards have improved a lot over the last couple of decades through things like trustee training, codes of practice and shared experience.

It is very easy to point to oneoff cases where there have been failings but that can’t necessarily be extrapolated across the whole sector. And even if governance is actually as shocking as Acevo would sometimes have us believe, there is no guarantee that payment of trustees would improve it.

Acevo has also argued that the change would save charities bothering the Commission by asking it to do its job, and that very few charities would seek to make payments anyway. This begs the question as to why there is any point changing the current system for one no one really wants, which won’t make things better, and which would risk a loss of public trust and confidence.

Sad irony

Apart from Acevo, the rest of the sector (by which I mean umbrella bodies talking on its behalf) was largely united in slapping down Hodgson, although they have been criticised for not supporting another initiative which affects those legitimately paid by charities.

There’s a certain sad irony about the Charity Employees Benevolent Fund having to close: that a sector so good at dedicating its effort to supporting those on hard times couldn’t do the same for its own. There’s a charity-beginning-at-home analogy right there if anyone can be bothered to make it.

Will we need to set up a Charity Employees Benevolent Fund Employees Benevolent Fund? Or will CEBF’s former staff, along with other sector workers and dependents down on their luck, just have to hope Hodgson’s proposals become law and line up some tidy-little-earner trusteeships? 


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