Peter Hollins has recently been appointed as Chair of the Board at Southampton Hospitals Charity. With an extensive executive and non-executive career across the charity and commercial sectors, Peter joins Marie McQuade for our latest instalment of Chairs in Conversation, to reflect on his career and provide advice for those looking to Chair a Board.

What do you think makes a thriving board, and how can a chair inspire that?

The first step is making sure that you have the right people around the table, and that you monitor this as the needs of the organisation change. What might be the right skills and mix for one set of circumstances won’t suit another, so annual reviews are extremely important.

Secondly, you must be clear on the role of the trustees. A surprising number of people see being appointed to a board as is a matter of prestige, and it’s not — it’s hard work!

The requirements of the role should be clear to potential trustees before they join the board, and the first question that they should ask is “what’s the strategy?”. I’ve always been fascinated by the organisations that seem to be able to trundle along without being clear what their purpose is.

The next consideration is that the quality of board papers is critical. The purpose of a board paper is to define a situation, indicate what the critical issues are, and present options to the board. I’ve always said that if you can’t do that in under six pages, you haven’t understood the challenge.

Finally, it’s important to have some fun together as a group. You can’t force yourself to like each other, but as a Chair you can create a board in which you can have some enjoyment and fun. I often reflect on chairing the CLIC Sargent Board, and there aren’t very many more grim subjects than young people with cancer. One of the reasons that the board worked really well is because the quality of the personal relationships was there and having a sense of fun got us through some very difficult and challenging decisions.

“A surprising number of people see being appointed to a board as is a matter of prestige, and it’s not — it’s hard work!”

What do you think will be the key differences between the independent NHS Charity board at Southampton Hospitals Charity and the main NHS Trust board you chaired for almost a decade?

The most obvious difference is the size. The income of the NHS is in the order of a billion pounds and the charity is a lot smaller. There is also a great deal of subtlety around the Charity being a self-standing entity. It will be important to ensure that we have the right understanding around how the objectives of the Charity and the Trust overlap, while ensuring that that the Charity first and foremost meets the needs of the patients of University Hospitals Southampton (UHS).

Many NHS Trusts have been talking about making the NHS Charities separate from the Trusts, and I am really interested to see if this can work in practice. There is something very attractive about the opportunity to set up an organisation from scratch; starting with a blank sheet of paper, designing the organisation and putting in the deliverables is hugely rewarding.

Finally, the governance is much simpler. Having worked in a variety of organisations, I can say that I love charity governance because if you can convince the trustees of the right course of action, you can make decisions very quickly. That’s quite different from a government or even a private organisation, where the decision-making process is more complicated. I think charities in general punch above their weight in terms of the amount of change that they produce for the resource that goes into them.

How does the governance of a charity allow them to be as effective and creative as possible when responding to a specific challenge?

People go into charities basically because they want to do good things. But that can make it quite easy to move forward on something that you think is a good idea and that make you feel good, but don’t deliver “hard-nosed” results. So it’s important to prioritise that measurable benefit over that warm and fuzzy feeling.

You also must be willing to make difficult decisions. Years ago, in my time as Chief Executive of the British Heart Foundation, we were faced with the possibility of having to make a significant number of people redundant because of a particular activity which was coming to an end. At the time, people said argued that we couldn’t make people redundant because we’re a charity. I had to say that it’s precisely because we are a charity that we’ve got to do that, because our responsibility is to use every pound that’s given to us as efficiently as possible.

So, while the charity sector conjures up a nice fuzzy feeling and it can be very rewarding, there’s equally a real sense of robustness that has to go about charity leadership.

“I love charity governance because if you can convince the trustees of the right course of action, you can make decisions very quickly. That’s quite different from a government or even a private organisation, where the decision-making process is more complicated. I think charities in general punch above their weight in terms of the amount of change that they produce for the resource that goes into them.”

If you were starting out now, what would you advise yourself either as a Trustee or as a Chair?

I think one of the things is absolutely critical to any successful charity is the relationship between the Chair and the Chief Executive.

First off, you both need to be absolutely crystal clear on what your roles are. Then, you have to develop a relationship where you can both ask advice of each other, but also be able to tell the other to “get your tanks of my lawn”.

This comes from a sense of humility and the ability to step back and clarify your roles if they’re becoming a bit fuzzy.

We’d like to thank Peter for joining us, and we wish the very best as you take up your role as Chair of the Southampton University Hospital’s Board.


Marie McQuade has a long history of working with charities to create impact. She has been recruiting board members for charities across the country since 2023, with a particular focus on healthcare and NHS.

You can get in touch with Marie via her Linkedin profile or you can send her an email.