The ethical workplace is a difficult goal for a charity

Few are queuing up to join the Ethical Property Foundation's Fairplace scheme, writes Oliver Frankham

Charities often find themselves in a bind over their accommodation, pay and conditions: plush offices and high pay, especially at the top, bring criticism from some quarters, and substandard workplaces, unpaid interns and the minimum wage attract it from others. Then there are wider questions such as your own carbon footprint and that of your suppliers.

A year ago the Ethical Property Foundation, a charity set up to offer independent property advice to charities, social enterprises and community groups, started a new workplace accreditation scheme called Fairplace to give a holistic assessment of how organisations in all sectors treat their staff, engage with their communities and affect the environment.

Those that reach the required standard receive a certificate lasting three years, which can be used to show clients and the wider world that they have high and wide-ranging ethical standards. So far, five organisations have achieved Fairplace status - one university, three corporates and one charity, the Catholic overseas aid agency Cafod. Ten more awards will be announced soon.

Antonia Swinson, chief executive of the foundation, says it can be difficult for charities to reach the required standard. "We've been talking to some of them and only big ones are likely to be interested," she says. "Some of the biggest names in the charity world don't pay the living wage. They go in for zero-hours contracts and unpaid interns. It is worrying to hear the stories from young people at the sharp end.

"I'd like to think more will go for it, particularly if they want to pitch for public sector contracts. It's proof to staff, suppliers, service users and donors that you are running an ethical workplace, which is particularly important at the moment when charities are getting such bad press."

Al Lewis, facilities manager at Cafod, says it has benefited from Fairplace accreditation. "We didn't have to make any real changes because Cafod has always been a campaigner on the living wage and climate change," he says. "It was a useful process for us because it pointed out the areas where we weren't as organised as we could be, or where we needed to update things. Most charities should be able to pass with a little bit of work."

Gill Taylor, an HR consultant specialising in the non-profit sector and a Third Sector columnist, says she is not surprised that charities are not queuing up. "Generally speaking, the voluntary sector has fair, kind and considerate employers, but they are being bludgeoned by the reality of external pressures," she says. "There's the austerity agenda and massive cuts in local government funding.

"Charities are generally better than the private sector, apart from pay. They do their best by staff and don't generally offer short-term or zero-hours contracts unless they have to because of funding pressures. They do not set out to be unethical, and they don't have a lot of time to think about engaging with a new kitemark."

To achieve Fairplace status, an applicant pays £250 and completes a self-assessment form that is then assessed by experts. As well as pay and conditions, the questions cover community relations, staff volunteering, and the reduction of energy and water consumption.

The first four questions in the form determine eligibility by asking if you pay the living wage, allow staff representation, have carbon emission reduction targets and landlord-tenant cooperation. Third Sector put the first two to 10 major UK charities: of the six that replied, only one answered "yes" to both.

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