Editorial: Salaries in small charities press all the hot buttons

Acevo's figures on the average pay of chief executives in small charities, up by 23 per cent to £37,000, have been one of the strongest talking points recently.

They appeared just after an impassioned letter to Third Sector from the (unpaid) company secretary of the Kent Battle of Britain Museum Trust, who argued that no one should be paid more than £25,000. And they sparked another equally impassioned letter, printed next to this column, which queries Acevo's claim that the figures, based on only 26 respondents from charities with incomes below £150,000 a year, were indicative of a trend across the sector. It's clearly a hot subject.

The probability is that, as always in this multi-faceted sector, there are many different things going on at once and therefore few generalisations will hold good. The results, which also showed an 8 per cent increase to a median salary of £57,300 for all 700 chief executives who took part in the survey, are likely to say more about the low number of small charity chief executives who join Acevo than they do about the thousands of others who don't. The chances are that those who join are interested in professionalisation, expansion and service delivery and are therefore more likely to require and deserve higher pay and bigger increases than many organisations of similar size. As part of its mission to promote modern, effective, high-calibre leadership, Acevo says the pay rises can only be a good thing, and readers who responded to our latest online poll provide another snapshot: they said by a margin of about 75 to 25 per cent that it's a good thing that pay has increased for small charity chiefs.

All the same, it was an unfortunate coincidence that the figures appeared just as more voluntary organisations were announcing plans for job losses in response to the coming recession. Perception can be as important as fact in such matters, and it would be easy for people to come away with the impression that the generals are looking after themselves while the infantry are discarded.

The wider context, of course, is that other surveys consistently show that the public thinks the level of pay for voluntary sector chief executives is a cause for concern. How good does it look when a charity with an annual income of £150,000 pays its chief executive almost a quarter of that?

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