I got really excited a few years ago when I heard that British Waterways was to become independent of government and be re-launched as a charitable trust. “I’d really like to get involved with that,” I thought. And I’m so glad I did.
I was appointed to be one of the first trustees of what became the Canal & River Trust and I had the extraordinary privilege of helping to achieve the transition of British Waterways into one of the most important and vibrant charities in England and Wales.
Being on the Board of any charity is both enjoyable and, at times, demanding. The recent rather febrile atmosphere of mistrust and cynicism about the fundraising methods, the governance and the effectiveness of some charities underlines that being a trustee is not for the faint-hearted. However, it is a fantastically rewarding way of using your skills and expertise, harnessing your commitment and passion and getting involved in some of the most fascinating and important causes in society. It is one of the most fulfilling volunteering roles you can have.
I’m often asked why I got involved in the Canal & River Trust. I’ve been proud to be on the Board of other charities and voluntary organisation, indeed I still am on a number of Boards, but this opportunity was intriguing for all sorts of reasons. Alongside the usual challenges of creating effective governance, ensuring the new charity would be well managed and had the financial and other resources it needed to do its work, we needed to establish a culture that could embrace volunteering and fundraising and make them fundamental parts of its DNA.
At the same time the new board had to make sure the charity focused on its new charitable objectives and be open to the widest possible groups of the population. Steeped as I am in the not-for-profit world, these are things I care about: good governance and public benefit. Then there was the boating, the heritage, the commitment to the environment and to education – why wouldn’t anyone want to do it?
Well, as I said earlier, it’s not for the faint-hearted and shouldn’t be taken on lightly. Being on a trustee board is not a badge of honour, it’s a demanding job for which you don’t happen to get paid. If anything, expectations about the behaviours of trustees are greater than for many paid roles. You must make sure that all the charity’s assets are used exclusively to further the charity’s objects and you must preserve that most vital of assets – public trust and confidence. As the charitable sector has seen recently, if that trust is lost or damaged, if the public no longer has confidence in the board or management of an organisation, it’s hard to regain it, it’s hard to find and keep volunteers, it’s hard to raise essential funds.
That’s why being a trustee is one of the most demanding volunteer roles – it’s not just the obvious challenges of making sure you’ve got sufficient resources of people, time and money to achieve the charity’s objectives. You’ve got to have systems of accountability and the culture that means you can build public trust.
It’s also one of the most fulfilling roles you can have. For me, to have seen the extraordinary development of the Canal & River Trust from a twinkle in the eyes of Tony Hales and Robin Evans to the established, successful charity it is today, has been amazing. It’s also astonishing to see how quickly and with what confidence this transformation has been achieved. We’re not only focused on our charitable objectives but we’re building a wider and deeper network of people who care about the future of the waterways.
Through our volunteers and friends, as well as our employees and partners, we’re achieving our vision of creating living waterways, enriching lives and transforming places. I’m also proud that we’ve been successful in safely negotiating some of the other potentially difficult transitions all Boards face - appointing a new Chair, Allan Leighton, and bringing in new trustees to add to the skill mix of the Board. In the future we’ll be appointing more trustees as some of the original ones come to the end of their terms of office.
There are many ways people can contribute to our work and in national Trustee Week I’m delighted to emphasise the work of the board of the Canal & River Trust. I’m particularly proud that by being one of the trustees I can combine my passions for boats, heritage and the environment through this really special form of volunteering.
Our guest bloggers all have a passion for our waterways, whether they are volunteers, staff or the experts we work with.See more blogs from this author