Interview: Matt Barlow

The chief executive of Christians Against Poverty extols the virtues of workplace friendship

Matt Barlow
Matt Barlow

According to early results from this year's Charity Pulse survey, charity staff morale is at an all-time low, with only 29 per cent of voluntary sector employees reporting that spirits are high in their organisations. So charity leaders could learn a lot from the Bradford-based charity Christians Against Poverty, which is celebrating its inclusion in the Sunday Times Best 100 Companies to Work For awards for the fourth time.

This year, the debt counselling organisation came third in the not-for-profit category and its chief executive, Matt Barlow, and its founder and international director, John Kirkby, shared the award for Best Leader. The charity employs about 170 staff at its headquarters and has a network of debt help centres across the UK.

"We are fortunate that the people we employ are passionate about helping people in need," says Barlow. "They are motivated by our cause, and not just because it is a job - one hopes that every charity can benefit from this to some degree."

Caring leadership

Barlow believes that authoritative and caring leadership is key to keeping morale high. New staff members are invited to dinner at Barlow's house and 'Munch with Matt' lunch meetings give managers a chance to share ideas and concerns.

The encouragement of socialising among employees appears central to many of the charity's initiatives. Staff conferences have a free bar and there are 'revive days' four or five times a year where employees might go for a country walk or a barge trip. Staff are also encouraged to take morning, lunch and afternoon breaks. This is thought to be good for morale and helps people to get to know each other. It is also positive from a health and safety perspective in that it forces people to take screen breaks.

"Research shows that people who have close friends at work are more likely to be satisfied in their workplace," says Barlow. "So we create the time and space for people to be more than just work colleagues. It is very valuable for the workplace."

He believes that while there is not much cost in providing perks such as free fruit and tea, it adds up to people feeling valued. It means employees are more likely to give their best, stay with the charity, contribute ideas and participate in fundraising.

Staff morale

"It takes one good idea from one person to save the charity thousands of pounds," he says. "I don't know how much we spend on staff morale, but unquestionably we get it back economically."

Certainly, little is spent on recruitment, with a low staff turnover and vacancies often spread by word of mouth among friends and families.

When asked how other charities can develop a similar ethos, Barlow says it comes down to the leadership team. "The challenge is: do you really care about people?" he says. "Do you see their intrinsic worth as individuals, or are they just there to get the work done? If you truly value people, it will naturally flow over into the workplace."

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