By the Waters of Babylon: why do charities exile their alumni?

(An edited version of this piece was published by Civil Society Media on 11 August 2022)

  1. When people complete their time as a Chair or Trustee, a member of staff or unpaid volunteer of a charity, in many cases they are, in effect, exiled from the charity. However intimate their knowledge of the charity from years of service, however precious their institutional memory, however wise and experienced they may have become, however strong the love they bear for it, many charities do not find a way of tapping into those gifts. Often enough, it’s just goodbye and farewell. At first blush, that seems a sad waste.
  2. I have been Chair or Vice Chair of eight charities. There have been exceptions, but overall it has been relatively rare for them to seek my advice on anything at all, or contact me as a former Chair, from the day I stepped down. Of course, that might be because I am thought to have nothing useful to offer, but then I look at my own practice as Chair and reflect with regret on how very rarely I approached one of my predecessors to seek advice or even just a sense of solidarity.
  3. Chairs, other Trustees, volunteers, (and many paid staff who could have earned more in another sector), have given all those years’ service for love. Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to invoke the song of exile: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered you, O Sion (Jerusalem)”; but we former Chairs and other alumni do usually think lovingly of the charities that have been an important part of our lives, and it can be painful to be consigned to oblivion (except in our identity as donors).
  4. There are important exceptions to the exile of former Chairs, Trustees and other volunteers and friends. If a charity has a Council or Assembly as part of its governance, they will often be part of them and continue to make their experience and judgement available in those forums. That might also make it more likely that they become involved in task forces on particular subjects or contribute through informal personal relationships. But a considerable proportion of charities do not have such governance arrangements and rely on a Board of Trustees who appoint future trustees themselves. In some cases, alumni might be invited back to a set piece gathering or might be invited to join taskforces or give a view, but my impression is that this is quite uncommon. If this impression is correct, why is the outcome so often exile?

The Reasons for Exile

5. Firstly, we may pay the outgoing Chair and other alumni the compliment of assuming that they will be very busy with other important commitments, which will often be true, and will not want us to bother them with the affairs of a charity they have now left, which will less often be true. Nor will the outgoing Chair, for example, wish to give the impression that he or she or is unwilling to let go or believes the new Chair needs their help. Perhaps self-respect and a little pride comes into it: “I can cope quite well thank you without running back to the former Chair”, thinks the new Chair. “Please don’t think I can’t let go – I’ve got plenty of other interests and involvements”, signals the former Chair. Such sensitivities may lead to a reciprocal reluctance to approach each other.

6. Sometimes, secondly, those remaining in the charity view the departure of the former Chair or other alumni with relief, or at least see the opportunity for new and better ways of managing the affairs of the charity. For example, if problems of toxic culture emerge, the former Chair, Trustees or senior staff may be seen as part of the problem rather than the solution. They in turn may in individual cases be heartily fed up with the charity and glad to hear no more from it. Both scenarios are familiar, but neither is the norm.

7. New working relationships need space to solidify. For instance, if the Chair leaves, there will be a proper desire to develop a new, all-important relationship between new Chair and CEO. Sensitive former Chairs will respect that and will not, as it were, wish to hang around in someone else’s marriage, nor will the CEO wish to appear to want to consult the former Chair rather than the new one. Similarly, a refreshed Board of Trustees or management team will want to bond with each other and generate a fresh team spirit rather than mix it with those who have just left.

8. Consider the convention in the Church of England that the outgoing Bishop of a Diocese should arrange to leave that Diocese and retire elsewhere. The thought is that for the mother- or father-in-Christ for many years to hang around in the same Diocese will make life more difficult for the new Bishop, because people might hanker after the old one and the authority of the new Bishop might be compromised. No doubt there is much bitter and valid experience that underpins that convention, which applies to some extent to other charities.

9. A further consideration is being up-to-date with knowledge and understanding. Even a small number of years can make a big difference to the assumptions and priorities of a charity in a rapidly changing world. There is a proper fear that alumni from a few years’ ago might well still be operating on an outdated understanding.

10. Yes, and time and resources are limited, and it is quite an effort to ensure effective engagement of existing Trustees and staff, without trying to take in alumni, too. It isn’t easy to find ways of involving alumni that don’t seem tokenistic or even unreal, so can it really be a priority?

11. Put these factors together with the formal legal position. The mindset of many charities is quite heavily legal; this is a key factor. You are either (for example) a Trustee with specific responsibilities, or not. You are either a member of staff or volunteer subject to defined management and accountability, or not. If you are not responsible or accountable, you should not be part of the decision-making of those who are in law responsible. It’s not your job any more.

And Yet….

12. And yet, even all these arguments taken together do not fully justify the loss to charities of the institutional memory, experience, judgement and informed goodwill of many former Chairs, trustees and senior staffers who are in many cases simply banished from the moment they step down. Sometimes, we may operate too rigidly according to the legal formalities of who is responsible and who isn’t. Most alumni completely understand the formal position and will give any advice and support within that framework. That doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer.

13. This is part of a wider challenge. Sometimes, our working relationships and methods are more exclusive than we intend: in many charities, there is no place and no role for alumni generally (former Chairs, Trustees, staff, volunteers): no networks, no communication (except as donors and supporters), no consultation. Perhaps some of the same mental obstacles prevent more progress in consulting beneficiaries and service users, and even collaborating closely with other charities. We rely on current staff and current Trustees and for many charities all our core working practices revolve around them. Yet it must be possible to be more open, more porous, more collaborative organisations, galvanising and capitalising on the goodwill and insights of wider circles of people, without compromising the formal legal accountabilities.

Good Practice in mobilising alumni?

14. Although it is rarer than it should be, there is some good practice out there in mobilising alumni, and I think umbrella bodies should be collecting and publicising it. Here are some examples that I have come across that need testing and building on.

15. At the level of structured opportunities, the regular strategic reviews that every charity should engage in are an opportunity for consultation with alumni. Get them involved, whether by reacting to drafts in writing or engaging in purposeful conversations. The same applies to service users and kindred charities. The fact that the existing Trustees will take the decisions and be responsible for the new strategy will be well understood by those who nevertheless may have important skills and experience to bring to bear.

16. Similarly, AwayDays can be more inclusive, with sessions including those beyond existing staff and Trustees.

17. As already noted, some charities with a Council or Assembly already have built-in opportunities for a gathering of the clans at their Annual Meetings. Those who don’t might think about similar gatherings that are sometimes a version of Social Audit. For example, there might be a session of the charity presenting its current work in market stalls to a cross section of stakeholders (including alumni), interacting with them, followed by a more formal presentation of current priorities and challenges, with Q and A and a commitment to follow up the points raised, with socialising and fun as part of the day. There is a cost, but also a good potential benefit for accountability, relationships and learning.

18. Occasionally, charities may want to use set-piece occasions to refresh and share again the distinctive history and story that every charity embodies and that gives it its unique character and motivation. Alumni would naturally be part of that, because they are part of the story.

19. Then there are less formal opportunities to include individual alumni on task forces and Commissions, or as trusted people with whom to share particular dilemmas and think through knotty problems. When it seems lonely and a struggle, it’s a great consolation to talk to someone of goodwill and understanding who has been through the same sort of thing. Quiet meals, drinks or walks with former alumni have their place.


20. There are ways in which more charities could be better at making use of the goodwill, knowledge and experience of their alumni. This is probably true of other sectors, too, though the legalistic nature of charity law and regulation may breed a mindset that is particularly inclined to exile those who are not formally responsible and accountable. I believe many charities would benefit from giving greater attention to this issue. We don’t need to see so many people that love the charity to which they gave years of service, weeping by the waters of Babylon.


One thought on “By the Waters of Babylon: why do charities exile their alumni?

  1. I left the Board of the Cornwall Community Foundation and my post as Chair of the Grants Committee at the end of 2020. The Chair completed her term a month ago. I was contacted soon afterwards by the incoming Chair, he had contacted a number of ex Board Members and staff to arrange meetings with them to discuss any ideas that we might have for improving the Board its operation and the smooth running of the organisation in general. On reflection I felt that this was a really positive idea, valuing and tapping into our collective knowledge and insight, it was certainly the first time that this has ever happened to me in my many years of involvement with the sector. It bodes well for the future of CCF and I would endorse everything that you say.
    Deborah Hinton


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