Editorial: The Samaritans story - a parable for our times?

Reform has not been achieved without protest, and it would be surprising if similar dramas are not happening in other charities, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Our analysis this week about what's been going on at Samaritans will probably strike a chord in many charities that have recently been changing because of financial pressures or other imperatives of the downturn.

It's rare in any organisation for significant reform to be achieved without some pain, which often remains hidden or disguised: unhappy staff usually don't dare go public, or are silenced with payoffs.

In the case of Samaritans, one individual did break ranks by writing to Third Sector, claiming the support of other staff and volunteers. The question was whether an isolated employee was using allegations of misused donations to pursue a personal grudge, or matters of objective importance were being raised.

Samaritans chose to respond in detail when some organisations would have circled the wagons and said as little as possible. This permitted an unusually frank account of what can happen when the decision has been made to take a charity in a new direction.

The evidence suggests Samaritans was ripe for a shake-up to make the most of its potential and reach more people. It's also clear that a purposeful chief executive is pursuing a strategic plan to improve and modernise its services to beneficiaries. If she succeeds, that's surely the most important thing.

But the end doesn't entirely justify the means. Some of the measures have clearly been controversial internally and caused dissent. Salary hikes for senior people are highly sensitive in all sectors these days, and do not go down well when the rest of the staff get little or nothing.

At first the trustees were reluctant to pay the chief executive more than £100,000, but later lurched to the other extreme with a 33 per cent rise to £120,000. Perhaps that decision, the increases in pay for directors and the replacement of 20 per cent of the staff might have been better managed.

In some ways the story is a parable of our times. Change is happening all over the sector and few organisations will make the right judgements all the time. It would be surprising if similar dramas are not being enacted elsewhere, away from the spotlight.

- See our analysis

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