Mark Flannagan: 'Small wages, long months of darkness, constant danger...'

Well, it's not polar exploration, but working in the charity sector can be challenging, writes our columnist

Mark Flannagan
Mark Flannagan

When the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton advertised for people to crew his ship Endurance, it is said that he did so with the following words: "Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success." Whether this story is true or not, it wouldn’t take too much rephrasing to use a similar approach in a charity job advertisement.

Despite the excessive salaries of some charity chiefs, most of us didn’t come into the charity sector, or stay here, for the financial reward. Despite the battering our sector has taken in the media thanks to the misbehaviour and/or misjudgement of some we are still here, doing our best.

It is often difficult to keep being happy and contented in our sector. We face a lot of challenges and it is easy to think that, given the current political and economic context, things will only get worse in the year ahead. But who among us thought that life was going to be easy when we came to work for charities? We knew then, and still know now, that much of what we do is dependent on maintaining the support of donors and/or government agencies.

Often we are only chipping away at a huge problem, working towards making a small but valuable difference. We are cogs in the larger machine of a better society. Our personal specification for our sector should include the requirement to be optimistic against all the odds. There should also be a requirement to have hope based on a longer-term view of society and how things have, by and large, changed for the better.

When I started working more than 30 years ago (I am that old) we really did live in a different world. There was a supposedly right-wing Thatcher government (I will let you decide whether this was true or not). Ronald Reagan was US President (he was our Trump). The UK was about to become home to American Cruise missiles and we felt like the first target in the event of what we thought was the inevitable conflict between the two superpowers.

Unemployment was high. House prices had started to accelerate. Gay rights, let alone gay marriage, was controversial. To be out and a public figure was still unusual. It didn’t feel like a progressive, tolerant time to be alive.

Today the narrative has changed. Sexuality is seen, by and large, as no one's business but your own. In fact, homophobic or similarly bigoted comments by a public figure would now usually lead to their resignation. Nuclear war doesn’t feel imminent, although there is a growing feeling of general threat. The public discourse is still about caring for people.

Yes, there is still much to do. And, yes, we need to be careful we don’t go backwards. We need to keep fighting for what we have gained and try to keep the dial of progress moving in what we see as the right way. Too many people subject to the prejudices of others in this country and around the world. We will no doubt be appalled by the some of the statements and decisions politicians make in the year ahead. But we do live in a better world. Our sector has played and will continue to play a leading role in making it better. Don’t give up. Keep moving forward. Happy new year.

Mark Flannagan (@MarkFlannCEO) is chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer

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