With his top-flight experience of big business, modern corporate governance, management and decision-making, outgoing Chairman of Trustees Charles Toner has provided a wise, professional guiding hand on the Hospice’s tiller.
As he steps down from office after six years in post, he looks back on the highs and lows, the challenges and highlights of his Hospice story…
Q: What was your background before you came to the Hospice?
A: My background was business. For 35 years, my main career was with Abbey National (now Santander,) coming up through the branch network, being on the Board for the last 10 years, and ending up for the last three years as Deputy Chief Executive. After that, I did a number of non-executive directorships, including as Chairman of Barratt Developments from 2002-2008.
Q: When and why did you decide to get involved with the Hospice?
A: My wife Val has been a bereavement volunteer here since 1991 and through her, around 2000, I met Joan Gentry, the then Chair of Trustees. Joan asked if I’d have a look at some business plans because the Hospice was getting bigger and more for her to manage.
In 2001 Joan asked me to join the Nominations and Governance Committee (which I’ve been on ever since.) A year later she tried to get me to become a trustee, but it wasn’t until 2009 - after my chairmanship of Barratt Developments ended - that her successor, Jo Connell, finally persuaded me to join the Board. After Jo retired later that same year, I became Chairman.
The more I got involved, the more my impressions of the Hospice as a very special place were reinforced and with time on my hands, I wanted to give something back to the community.
Q: What do you cite as your biggest contribution?
A: I was lucky enough to inherit a good Board, but as the Hospice grew I could see that we needed to develop the management of it. The senior managers were able clinically and professionally but management as a skill was not sufficiently recognised and developed. I feel we’ve made huge strides in this area. The other area in which I’ve helped is in the development of good relations and collaboration with neighbouring hospices. This will continue in order to avoid duplication and reach as many people as we can.
Q: What have been the highlights of your time here?
A: One significant milestone was when we opened the 14th bed. The new building was always designed for 14 beds but we had only seven or eight in operation when we moved in 2007. Our energetic fundraising team had to continue growing the annual income to enable us to open more beds. It was about having the money to open them and keep them open in a very tough fundraising climate.
The other important development has been the expansion of our services beyond our 14 beds to reach more people in our outpatient Spring Centre and out in the community - be that in people’s homes, in care homes or in hospital. That’s where the growth will be in the future.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever given the hospice?
Reminding people that we can do anything, but we can’t do everything. Also, when selecting key people, always being clear about the experience and skills needed and the right personality to do the job – no big egos who can be disruptive and whose judgment can be clouded. These have been guiding principles over many years, which have served me well.
Q: What words would you use to describe your time at the Hospice?
A: I’ve always felt that what the Board and management were doing together was something very worthwhile. Whatever the problems, we had to find a way of solving them to ensure the organization went from strength to strength. It was often challenging, always interesting, it was rewarding and it was also fun – which isn’t a word a lot of people associate with the Hospice, but any work you enjoy should be fun. It’s been a lot more time-consuming than I thought it would be – sometimes every day, other times not much in a week - but it’s been a privilege. The Hospice is a great organization to be involved in.
Q: Why is the Hospice such a valuable resource?
A: Because it has rightfully established a good reputation for care of patients and families facing serious illness or at the end of life that’s seldom found in the NHS. The NHS isn’t short of resources for the start of life, but at the end they’re very limited. Thanks largely to the public supporting our fundraising and providing 80% of the money we spend, hospices have filled that gap.
Q: What, if anything, has the Hospice taught you?
A: It’s taught me a different aspect of motivation because it’s an organisation where a large part of the workforce are volunteers, without whom the place just wouldn’t be what it is.
Q: What do you see as the challenges now for the Hospice going forward?
A: All hospices across the UK have got real motivation to try to get our expert care out to more people who need it. We’d like to see more people being helped in our Spring Centre, in their own homes and in nursing and care homes where they might be living, rather than being moved unnecessarily in and out of hospital wards. The challenge will always be about having enough money to reach more people and doing it in the most efficient ways. You have to assume that funding from the NHS isn’t going to improve, so the answer always comes back to collaboration.
Q: Why are you standing down?
A: Our Board members usually serve for six years. I think this is a good policy because six years is quite a commitment for volunteers and if you’re going to make your mark, you’ll do it inside that time. I feel very comfortable handing over the reins to Alison Woodhams, a former BBC Group Financial Controller, currently Treasurer of the Board and a very able lady, bringing considerable experience at the highest level.
Q: What will you do now?
A: I’m going to see if I can take things a bit easier and not go looking for any more big appointments! I intend to spend more time with my wife Val, I want to learn Spanish, perhaps find some time for some watercolouring and I’d like to improve my golf.
Q: Will you miss the Hospice?
A: Yes! The Hospice has been a big part of my life for the last six years. I’ll miss the people who work here, their dedication and the friendly atmosphere, but I wish it well and know it’s in great hands.