Friday, 9 August 2013

A salutary lesson on why bureaucrats should keep their mouths shut unless they have something useful to say

The subject of my blog today was going to be on the crucial relationship between the CEO of a charity and the Chair of the Board of Trustees, but I will write this one next week. So watch this space!

However my attention has been distracted over the debate spurred by the Daily Telegraph's 'revelations' about the salaries of charity leaders, and the subsequent inappropriate (some might say inept) comments of the Chair of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross. He is reported to have said that large salaries paid to charity staff would "bring the sector into disrepute"and that organisations must ask if their pay levels are "really appropriate."

There have been a flurry of articles, comments, tweets and blogs on the subject from various sector figures and umbrella bodies, and not surprisingly the general feeling is the same. Firstly, it is up to the Board of Trustees of a particular charity to decide the salary levels in that organisation. Secondly, we are talking about highly skilled and experienced people here, running large and complex organisations with turnovers of hundreds of millions of pounds and thousands of staff; why should they not be paid a salary to reflect this responsibility, expertise and experience? Thirdly there is the social return on investment angle; after all these people are doing a job that actually makes the world a better place;  they already work for considerably less than they would earn in the public and private sectors; why the hell should anyone be questioning that?

I am summarising here a number of points but generally there is broad agreement across the charity sector and the sector media that pay of senior charity staff should be proportionate to their experience and the size and complexity of their role. I could not agree more.

To say I feel sorry for those who are the subject of this non-scandal would be over-egging it. I think these individuals have broad enough shoulders! And I do sometimes wonder, if I were earning over £150k, what I would do with all that money! I would like to think that, after I had paid my bills, supported my family and secured a reasonable but not excessive lifestyle, I would try do social good with this money. I am sure that this is exactly what does happen, but it is certainly not up to me to make judgments.

What is most amazing to me, however, is that a non-executive bureaucrat being paid £50k for just two days work a week (yes, that is £125k pro rata!) feels either qualified or able to make judgments on the amount that charities pay their staff. Secondly and more importantly as a senior figure in the charity sector (albeit the regulator) why would he make the mistake of saying something that could potentially damage public confidence in the sector? I would like to hope that he has been misquoted or taken out of context, but I fear this is not the case. I think he is simply guilty of making an unwise comment to the media, and is now living to regret this. The worst case scenario is that he actually does believe that charity staff should be expected to subsidise their own lifestyle just because they want to change the world.

The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail and many other popular papers love to uncover a scandal, and Shawcross has helped provide them the ammunition they need. If he had taken the line that Stephen Bubb, CEO of ACEVO and many others had taken, the story would have probably gone back into the gutter where it deserves to be. Instead of which there are probably a large number of people out there who may be considering their support for their favourite charities. Although donors are far more savvy than they ever have been, and let's not forget that, there will be those who believe that charity staff are doing it for the love of it, and that they should earn a mere pittance to do so. And this story simply fuels the fire that charities are profligate spenders that not only hassle them on the streets every time they try to go shopping, but now are paying their executives outrageous salaries!

Interestingly, and I accept that Telegraph readers are a special breed, (!) but in a poll on the paper's website 72% have voted to say that they do not believe that charity CEOs should be paid £100k. The choices given for the poll were 'No. Donors want their money to go to the poor, not executives. Comparisons with what people might earn in the sector are wholly false.' and  'Yes. These people manage huge budgets and make life-or-death decisions. You have to pay for talent.' The result of this poll worries me. I hope it is giving Mr Shawcross a few sleepless nights too.

Let's just hope this is silly season and the story goes away. Some of the charity leaders named in the Telegraph article are giants in the sector, none more so than Sir Nick Young, CEO at the British Red Cross. This is a man who has given his life to the charity sector and led huge organisations like the British Red Cross and Macmillan to greater and greater things, improving and saving thousands of peoples lives along the way. And that on a salary less than the average CEO of a local authority in the South East of England. I know who gets my vote for the highest salary!

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