Opinion: Charity work’s great – just remember your hard hat

You would think that doing your bit for charity shouldn’t be too risky. However, if you get involved in some of the charitable farming organisations, you might need a hard hat.

Most livestock breed societies, and other related organisations such as the National Sheep Association, are registered charities. They all fulfil vital roles and they all have one thing in common – they’re all governed by a set of rules in one form or another.

The documents that contain these rules, constitutions and articles of association are not everyone’s idea of a good read. The result is that people who are members of these organisations will rarely read them.

In turn, this can lead to the people who are leading these organisations neglecting their rules as well. Sometimes this isn’t a problem; sometimes it’s a recipe for trouble.

Often, years can pass without anyone paying any attention to the rules then suddenly someone asks for clarity regarding one of them. This is the time for everyone to dive for cover and get their hard hats on. It means there is a very real chance that hostilities are about to break out. I know this because, for my sins, I’m guilty of asking for clarity when I think something is not right.

When the NSA decided to become a charitable company limited by guarantee three years ago, I was included in the small committee that helped to draw up their new Articles of Association. The “Articles” runs to 20 pages so the committee’s task was far from simple.

However, there was no shortage of people who had a wide range of experience on our committee, so collectively and with legal guidance we produced a document that we felt suited the needs of the organisation.

Since the new set-up was put in place, three years ago, things have gone surprisingly well. However, the intentions of the new Articles of Association was challenged for the first time just recently by a suggestion from a sub-committee that would have altered the responsibilities of the Chairman of the Board (cue me to reach for my hard hat and to ask for clarity about the articles of association).

When we were deliberating the new structure of NSA, a lot of time was spent deciding what the role of Chairman of the Board of Trustees was to be. We already had nine chairmen in the organisation as Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and each of the six English regions have their own committees with their own chairman.

We decided that these nine people were best placed to take the lead and to represent NSA in their own fiefdoms. With this in mind, we decided that the role of the chairman of the board should not be too onerous.  It would be enough to chair the meetings and nothing much more than that.

The changes that were proposed would have made the chairman’s role appear to be much more burdensome than what was originally intended. However, to their credit the board members referred to the articles of association and stopped the proposal before they did anything that strayed away from its original intentions.

It’s reassuring that NSA have people spread all over the UK that are capable of taking the lead and to carry the torch for the association. In Scotland, we are fortunate to be led by Sybil MacPherson who farms in Argyll. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, only thinks she is leading the way with gender balance in government. NSA Scotland has been blazing a trail now in this regard. Our treasurer, Maimie Paterson, is also an extremely capable woman. 

This couldn’t be better – as the ladies tend to follow the rules more closely than their male counterparts.

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Neale McQuistin is an upland beef and sheep farmer in south-west Scotland. He farms 365 hectares in partnership with his wife, Janet, much of which is under stewardship for wildlife.

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