Are senior charity leaders paid too much?


Judy Robinson at ALW13

This article was first published in the Yorkshire Post on 27 August 2013.

A response by Judy Robinson to the current debate around charity leaders’ pay: 

“The current debate, especially in the national press, about charity leaders’ pay seems to create more confusion than clear thinking. It veers between a view that charities have to compete in the market place so pay has to reflect this fact and an idea that they are all fat cats taking money away from good causes.

In many cases, the big charities provide services commissioned by Government and local authorities and with complex contractual requirements. You need people with high levels of skills and experience – and that has to be paid for. After all, if something goes wrong it will be no good saying it was the fault of incompetent amateurs if that’s all you’ve been willing to pay for!

And yet I still worry because it’s more than an argument about money; it’s about what’s at the heart of charities and society too. It’s more than what some of the large charities are saying – we  have a remuneration committee of trustees to decide pay rates, it’s all done independently so it’s all above board and transparent.

There are two particular worries. First, we do need the right people with the right experience to run social businesses and this has to be properly rewarded. But they are still charities, so their senior leaders need a strong connection to people, for example, in charity shops, the fund raisers and the local branches. They need to really get the sense of freely given commitment and, sometimes, the personal experience of suffering or loss that can drive this activity and often is the origin and life blood of the charity. This understanding and empathy is critical. The young-ish, highly business qualified, professional charity exec and the old-ish, highly life experienced volunteer must relate to each other positively.

I guess though that one of the causes of this potential distance is that some big charities can look more to contracts or commercial sponsorship than to their members and supporters at the grass roots.

Second, I think attention needs to be paid to another gap-that between the pay of the person at the top and the lowest paid employee.  Important questions need to be considered:  Is the charity paying the Living Wage?  Is it using zero-hours contracts, and yet paying big top salaries? It seems to me that if you say you want to make the world a better place, you must make sure what you demand outside is not contradicted by practises inside.

It can be done. In one local authority, they have increased the pay of their minimum wage employees to the Living Wage by top slicing the pay of the people at the higher end. At the Joseph Rowntree Foundation here in Yorkshire, close attention is paid to that all important ratio between top and bottom (1:11, whereas FTSE private sector companies average 1:262). In addition, all staff, including care workers, are paid at least the Living Wage.

But this argument goes beyond the detail of pay rates and structures-as important as they are. When the BBC was criticised for its high salaries and severance packages it was argued that working for the BBC was not the same as working for a commercial channel; it was a unique position and offered an opportunity for public service, a reward in itself. Now, some of this criticism was using pay as a cover to make a more general case against the BBC – and I don’t rule this out in terms of the criticism of charities too, but there is something in the idea that service and vocation are still important.

The founders of many of our best known charities were people of faith-they had a sense that there was a moral demand on them to take action. Of course what you do as a philanthropist is not the same as running a multi-million pound organisation, but founding principles still matter.

It is important to point out that the vast majority of charities, especially at the local level, are modest in their pay rates-indeed many have reduced staff working hours and pay so they can survive and continue to provide their services.

I welcome the announcement that the Charity Commission and NCVO are going to look at these issues. I think it will need to go beyond the pay issue alone. Come to think of it, maybe other sectors could also look seriously at the growing gap between top pay and low pay because that impact is just as worrying for our society’s well being.

What do you think? Are senior executives paid too much or are the payments justified?

Which is more important – actual wages or wage ratios within organisations?

Please do share your comments and thoughts below.

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One Response to Are senior charity leaders paid too much?

  1. The “debate” seems to me to have a political context with a capital “P”. If charities can be characteised as “grasping” by association with their “grasping bosses”, then their charitable credibility will be undermined. I think it part of a pattern.

    And so to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill that is mounting a major attack on the ability of charities to campaign, Quiet charities in the run up to an Election would be a major advantage to a political party that wanted to silence the messages that it did not want to be made public to the Electorate. If you can’t kill the message, kill the messenger instead. Or at least silence them.

    And the appalling performance of the Charity Commissioners in the recent CUP Trust tax scam affair has holed below the waterline the confidence the Government has in the Commission. So the voice of our regulator that should be raised in the defence of our voices goes unheard by Ministers who see it as discredited.

    In summary, Government has clearly decided that it does not need the charity and community sector to be “on side”. And so we need to look at waht may be next.

    What price the Chancellor seeks to remove the VAT concession for charities? But only when the charities can’t speak out to defend themselves on this issue because an Election loomsand the Bill that restricts that right has been enacted.

    So much for we’re all in it together. Charities are clearly not or the Government would not be positioing itself the way that it is.

    Chris Longley

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