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Why I am a Charity Trustee: An Interview with Myra Barnes

6 June 2024

“It was great to be able to bring my experience to something that I was interested in and where I hoped I could make a bit of a difference.”

For 40 years now, Volunteers’ Week has provided us with an opportunity to recognise, celebrate and thank the UK’s volunteers for all that they contribute to our local communities, the voluntary sector, and society as a whole. Another key part of the event is raising awareness of the benefits of becoming a volunteer and showcasing the diverse volunteering roles that are available, including that of a Trustee.

The Architectural Heritage Fund (AHF) is extremely grateful to our wonderful Trustees, who voluntarily dedicate so much of their time to support and lead us in helping charities and social enterprises to restore and regenerate historic buildings for the benefit of communities across the UK. From their commitment to conserving historic buildings and bringing them back into community use, to the wide range of skills and expertise that they bring to our Board, much of the AHF’s work would not be possible without them.

To mark Volunteers’ Week 2024, we sat down with Myra Barnes, who recently stood back after a decade as an AHF Trustee and member of our Credit Panel and Audit & Risk Committee, to find out how she got into volunteering, to discuss the benefits of being a Charity Trustee, and to look back on her time with us here at the AHF.

You can read the interview with Myra below. Note – this interview has been edited for brevity.


Can you tell me a little bit about your career background?

I’m a qualified Town Planner, so I spent all of my career working in town planning and development.

I started my career, actually, working in local government as a Planning Officer. From there, I moved to work for the London Docklands Development Corporation on the redevelopment of Docklands, and then Olympia and York, who built Canary Wharf. Next, I worked for what is now National Grid, where my role was to review the future use of all the old gas work sites around the whole country.

Virtually every town and city in the UK used to have a gas works where they made town gas, but they then moved on to North Sea gas. This meant that National Grid was left with a lot of very big, redundant sites all around the country. My job was to look at what use you could put those sites to, and to put together a multi-disciplinary team and project manage creating a masterplan for the site. This then involved producing planning applications and  negotiating  with local authorities to try and get planning permission for the resultant redevelopment.

So, I became quite used to looking at the use of a site – how a site could be developed in terms of open spaces, built form, etcetera – and to working with lots of different consultants, eg. transport consultants, archaeologists, ecologists, and so on. I learned how to work with lots of disciplines, assess what they’d done, and then put their work together as a package to negotiate with local authorities.

I think  the ability to look at things in a strategic way is very helpful as a Trustee. We all have different qualifications and abilities. However, when you become a Trustee, rather than working on your particular part of any project or work, you have to look at it in a wider way, not just focus on your discipline.

Why did you decide to become a Charity Trustee and what was the first charity you became involved with?

My first similar experience was sitting on the property Board of a housing association. While not a charity, my role there involved assessing officers’ reports, so it was good experience for being a Trustee.

I’ve also been a volunteer for two charities: Beanstalk, where we went into primary schools and helped kids who were struggling with reading, and Liberty Choir, where you go into prisons to sing with the prisoners. I found both experiences very rewarding.

I was introduced to the AHF by some former colleagues who asked if I’d be interested in becoming a Trustee, and I thought that it did sound interesting. The AHF is the only charity where I’ve been a Trustee.

What, in your opinion, is the most rewarding part about being a Charity Trustee?

Being able to use your experience to help others is very rewarding. Especially with a relatively small charity, you can feel that you’re making a difference both to the beneficiaries and to the work of the charity itself.

Clearly, you need to be really interested in the type of charity where you become a Trustee. My whole career has been about buildings and the social aspects of communities. I’ve done so much community liaison in my past in terms of progressing schemes all over the country, and it was great to be able to bring my knowledge of that process to benefit others. That’s the main thing.

It has also been  interesting and rewarding on a personal level to work alongside the different people who are also Trustees and to see the mix of people on the Board.

What initially attracted you to becoming a Trustee at the AHF?

I was interested in the AHF because of my experience and because I’ve always worked with buildings. In particular, I’ve seen first-hand how inherently difficult it can be to make the re-use of listed or historic buildings financially viable. One project I worked on in Edinburgh was a huge, listed gas holder for which we’d been really struggling to find a new use. Edinburgh Council wanted it to be retained. We did so many studies and could not find a way to make it financially viable. If it had been in London, like the King’s Cross ones, then you could have probably made it into housing or something like that. In the end, we went to appeal, and we went through a public enquiry. Eventually, we were turned down, and National Grid were left with this redundant gas holder that I think is still standing there now to this day.

As a result of that project, I’d been thinking a lot about the reuse of listed and historic buildings and how difficult it was, as well as how financially problematic the process often is. In a way, my introduction to AHF was very much an opportune occasion to think, well maybe you can reuse historic buildings in a way which is of benefit to the local community.

In your time at the AHF, how have you been able to apply your skills and experience to your role as a Trustee?

My time as Trustee was a very interesting period. When I first started at the AHF, the charity was very much about the conservation of historic buildings, full-stop. A lot of the projects that came forward were things like historic houses and stately homes, and we were generally being asked to fund projects that would turn the building into some sort of art gallery or a visitor attraction.

While I’m very interested in conserving historic buildings, my other interest is social impact. Why couldn’t you combine the two goals and adapt the buildings into something that would benefit local people, rather than just bring in tourists? Of course, tourism has an important place in the financial viability of many historic buildings, but you can’t do this with every building. I kept on saying that I think we should change our approach and promote social impacts, as well as the conservation. Now, happily, social impact is a big part of what the AHF hopes to achieve. I used my experience and skills, therefore, in a way that changed how the AHF looked at its projects. Obviously, projects have to be financially viable in a way that they’re sustainable, but they also have to provide something for the community.

Beyond that shift, I brought the problem solving, critical thinking and ability to look at a project holistically that I’d learned in my day job. Sometimes, it’s also about looking at something in a slightly different way. Thinking a bit outside of the box. Hopefully, I’ve applied all of those aspects within my role.

At the AHF, I sat on both the Audit & Risk Committee and Credit Panel. The Credit Panel was more akin to my day job, while Audit & Risk Committee was less so. I think because I’m not a financial person, quite often I looked at things in a slightly different way to the accountants and finance people. For this reason, I think it’s good to make sure you have a combination of people with slightly different skills in the committees, as well as on the Board.

Any advice you’d give to somebody who is thinking about becoming a Charity Trustee?

The first thing would be that you have to be really interested in the work of the charity. You have to be interested enough to want to contribute fully and  be prepared to put the time in to it. Don’t underestimate the time that is needed to function properly as a Trustee. You have to be dedicated to putting the time in to actually help the officers  do what they require of you in terms of your role. But by putting that time and commitment into being a Trustee, in my view, you get a lot back from it as well.

Would you recommend being a Trustee at the AHF?

Definitely. The AHF is obviously a worthy charity. It’s very relevant in terms of social objectives, as well as linking into retaining historic buildings or buildings of interest. To add to this, you’ve also got sustainability, climate change, etcetera. In short, all of the major topics are embodied within the objectives of the charity.

What the AHF has done and continues to do is always seeking to develop and consider future needs of communities. A very good example of that is looking at housing and how you can bring more affordable housing into the high street, which I think is a great idea.

Within AHF, there’s also very committed staff and that is incredibly important to the success of any charity. As a Trustee, you really value that aspect. Over the years, I’ve seen the staff develop.

In fact, the whole charity has improved and developed out of all recognition from when I started, and that is a very important aspect of any charity. You have to respond to the needs of the community and your clients and social enterprises, and also be prepared to move forward and maybe take a few risks occasionally. Progressing is a major part of ensuring that you stay relevant. AHF has done that and continues to do that to this day.

That’s the main reason, together with all the committed staff and Trustees, why it’s a good place to be a Trustee and to be able to contribute to the future of the organisation.


If you have been inspired by Myra’s words and would like to get involved in volunteering, you can visit:

Don’t forget to keep an eye out for more opportunities to join the AHF, as we will be looking to appoint more Trustees to join our Board in the future!

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