Human resources: How are we managing?

For every positive experience of management in the charity world, there seems to be a horror story. Giles Morris investigates the quality of management in the voluntary sector and compares it with the situation in other sectors.

One of the charity sector's strongest cards is public perception.

Charities are generally seen as admirable institutions and, by extension, it's assumed that they must be good places to work in.

The statistics certainly seem to support this view. They paint a picture of a sector that takes work-life balance and employee welfare seriously - 38 per cent of charity employees work part time and 67 per cent are women. Ethnic minorities and disabled people are also relatively well represented.

The sector seems to make up for what it might lack in terms of pay and career structure with the way it treats its workers. Surely people who run organisations that exist to help others will be good colleagues and good managers?

Appearances can be deceptive, however. For too many voluntary sector employees, life is not the bed of roses it is said to be. "There's a myth that the charity sector is all sweetness and light," says one, who does not wish to be named. "In fact, it's probably worse than anywhere else."

Paradoxically, it seems the passion that motivates many charity managers seems to drive some of them to ride roughshod over their staff and colleagues.

Paul, who works for a Christian mission organisation, recalls his experience at a small environmental and human rights NGO. "The founder and his partner ran the charity themselves, but we started having disagreements," he says.

"After I'd been there only two months, they became increasingly abusive on the phone and in meetings. They said things like 'you're wasting our time' and 'you're taking the mick'. In my last few weeks, I was told I was an 'effing this' and an 'effing that' - nasty stuff."

Paul was not alone in being victimised. "Other colleagues were expected to work very long hours, had similarly shaky contracts and were treated abusively by the founders," he says.

What's more, he believes his experience is not uncommon. "There is a culture of small campaigning NGOs that have founders who have built them up from scratch," he says. "Their mentality is 'this is my empire and I've had to fight all the way'."

Paul moved on to another charity after three months. He describes his current employer as "supportive, understanding and willing to invest in me".

Others have been subjected to less overt but equally worrying mismanagement.

Denise, who currently fundraises for a disability charity, recalls her experience working under the chief executive of a small hospice. "I found I had been quite seriously lied to at my interview," she says. "I ended up in a situation in which I had to take on extra work in order to get the project off the ground. Although I was prepared to do the work to make a success of the project, the chief executive refused to include it in the contract. When I left, the chief executive withheld money from me - I had to take legal action."

Once she had secured a new job, Denise found the previous chief executive had withdrawn his reference and made a number of disparaging comments about her. According to Denise, however, such poor management practice was not confined to the chief executive. "The medical director would go in and shout at the nurses in front of other members of staff," she says.

"The nurses he gave a particularly hard time to were from ethnic minorities."

So are 'big' personalities and bullying issues apparent only in small charities? Not according to Christine, who worked for a household name charity and recalls the destabilising behaviour of her line manager. "My manager tidied my desk behind my back," she says. "I had quite a messy desk, and she would physically tidy it up while I was at work. She couldn't stand that I had bits of paper and files out.

"She'd be mean to me in front of the other staff. When I was mean back, she'd go mad and shout. When the project was completed, she didn't thank us for our hard work - she didn't even acknowledge that I'd met a deadline.

Instead, she just tidied my desk." All this, says Christine, was during a month in which staff were expected to work six or more days a week, with no overtime pay or time off in lieu.

Not everyone has a negative story to tell, however. Nick Bell, who works for a major health charity, talks of his "extremely positive experience of being managed in the voluntary sector".

So what makes a good manager? "In order to respect your manager, you need to think that they're good at their job" says Nick. "There was a great deal I could learn from my most recent manager. She had a very personal approach to management. She approached individuals on the basis of what they needed rather than just imposing her own management style. She asked me how I wanted to be managed. She'd say 'if you'd like to do things differently, we can discuss it'."

Many believe management is better in the charity sector than elsewhere.

Diane Flatt of fsu, a charity working with children and families, says: "I have had good and bad, but in most cases excellent, management experiences in the voluntary sector. I have also had good and bad experiences within small private firms, large corporates and the public sector. For those occasions where there is less than good management in the voluntary sector, there are many more - and worse - situations in the private sector."

So does anecdotal evidence of poor management practice point to a few bad apples or demonstrate something more endemic? Nick Harris of Alternative Futures says: "There can be an assumption that the voluntary sector is poorly managed and that other sectors are better managed, but we don't know one way or the other."

The few hard facts that do exist can be interpreted in different ways.

The fact that the charity sector, which accounts for 2 per cent of the workforce, accounts for 6 per cent of employment tribunal cases - three times its fair share - might seem like damning evidence about management in the sector (see tribunals feature, page 27).

Barry Jones, who covers charities in the south east for the manufacturing union Amicus, believes managers in the charity sector take advantage of the passion of their staff. "There's a certain degree of exploitation," he says. "Terms and conditions tend not to be among the most generous because employers know their workers believe in what they're doing."

Jones believes the conviction of charity staff means employers can get away with more in terms of procedures. "Whenever there's restructuring, the consultation tends not to be of a high quality," he says. "Management in the sector is not particularly sophisticated."

William Garnett, head of employment law at Bates, Wells & Braithwaite, agrees that "many charities fail to manage in a transparent fashion".

He sees a pattern in which issues concerning staff performance are not addressed early or strongly enough - but he also lays some of the blame on staff. "People take advantage of well-intentioned but often rather weak management," he says.

According to Garnett, tough love is the solution. He believes there needs to be a "grown-up conversation" about performance between management and staff to avoid situations in which grievances are aired in court.

Stephen Bubb, chief executive of chief executives' body Acevo, agrees.

"Adequate appraisal systems need to be in place," he says. "You have to be ready to deal with underperformance issues, including asking people to leave."

Bubb doesn't believe poor management is a particular problem for the charity sector. "Leadership skills are on a par with or better than in the private or the public sectors," he says.

As is so often the case in the charity sector, money is a key constraint.

Recent research from Agenda Consulting suggests that charities spend 35 per cent less than the average in the public and private sectors on professional development of their staff. It's no wonder that, to quote Bubb, "the capacity for professional development is much more limited than in the public and private sectors".

At the same time, charities often find it difficult to ask supporters to donate funds that will provide the training to improve management.

"We're pressed to get our management costs down," says Harris. "In the statutory sector, there is less pressure on costs."

There may be no simple answer to the question of whether or not management in charities is better or worse than in other sectors. But there's one thing that almost everyone in the debate agrees on - charities need to do more to develop their staff at all levels. It's common sense for charities to realise that their employees are their most valuable resource, that they must treat them well and point out where they are going wrong.

To do so, they will need to engage imaginatively with funders to find new resources that will pay for development. With Chancellor Gordon Brown launching a major review of the role of charities, and talking about "the vital role of the voluntary sector in our country", this is not a parochial issue.

Some of the names in this article have been changed.

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