Trustee boards of charities of all kinds up and down the land are currently charged with making life-changing or even life-or-death decisions about the future of their organisations.

Five hundred years ago many ‘physicians’ were working with no formal training or knowledge, and almost certainly killed as many patients as they cured and so Henry VIII established a college of physicians to root out malpractice.

In 2020 the Royal College of Physicians has a forecast deficit of £3million. In an effort to balance the books it plans to sell rare, non-medical, books from its library, including the first book printed in English. More than 400 members have written a letter opposing the plan, warning that this would be a serious dereliction of duty.

Assuming the College has the power to sell the relevant items (and that they aren’t held on trust) then if the trustees went ahead with any sale wouldn’t they only be continuing to advance the College’s charitable object - to maintain a high standard of medical ethics and education - by pursuing its current strategy of improving care for patients and shaping the future of health and healthcare?

They might well be doing so, but they have many factors to evaluate before reaching a final decision. Because as well as investing in its future the Society’s strategy also involves building on its heritage. The Times suggests dispersing its historic collection (a valuable resource for scholars) would dishonour the wishes of past benefactors and imperil future bequests. Members fear damage to the College’s reputation around the world.  

Apparently the sale is not agreed and the College is still engaged in its consultation process, presumably exploring all possibilities, and it would be right to do so. Before taking decisions, charity trustees must ensure they are sufficiently informed, taking any advice they need and account of all relevant factors.

At the moment many boards around the country are having to make hard choices. Information is power, but it’s also the basis of sound decision-making.