While the state offers a basic entitlement to maternity leave, the onus to top this up falls on employers, so would the sector be compromising its mission if it were to offer generous entitlements?
We know we shouldn't, but we can't help wanting to know how much other people earn. The latest Acevo survey of voluntary sector salaries, Talent Rises to the Top?, is a fascinating read because it shows how we compare with people in similar jobs in other sectors. But as well as the bare, payslip facts, Acevo's survey also lifts the lid on charities' approach to employee terms and conditions, such as pensions and annual leave. And here we learn that only 10 per cent of charities offer their staff anything more than the legal minimum in maternity pay and leave.
Is this a case of the cobbler's children being the worst shod, with the treatment of employees at 'moral organisations' at odds with their organisation's high-minded mission? Or is it reasonable for them to accept the statutory minimum and spend their budget on the cause and not the staff?
Each year, around 360,000 British working women have babies, many thousands of whom are employed in the voluntary sector. The state ensures a basic level of support for new working parents, increased in April 2003 to six weeks at 90 per cent pay, 20 weeks at £100 and a further 26 weeks unpaid.
Two weeks of paid paternity leave, also at £100 a week, and the introduction of leave and pay for new adoptive parents were also introduced. Most employers are able to claim all of these costs back from the Government.
The universal welcome given to these enhanced benefits was not accompanied by any evidence-based rationale for the levels at which they are set, and the Government indicated that they were the most generous terms that industry would accept. Other countries, notably in Scandinavia, have far more generous statutory minimums. Norwegian mothers have 52 weeks leave, all paid at 80 per cent of salary, while Sweden guarantees 450 days of leave to each family. UK research indicates that at least a quarter of new British mothers return to work sooner than they would wish because they cannot afford not to.
New parents working in any job face the familiar trade-off between time spent with their new baby and time spent earning money to support their family. Recognising that dilemma, employers operating in tight labour markets, and that are keen to hang on to good staff, offer more generous pay and leave to new parents. The Civil Service offers as much as three times the minimum, with 18 weeks leave at full pay, and private firms can be as generous if they see fit.
But charities are caught in a double bind that restricts the development of their parental policies. Voluntary sector employers may resist redirecting funds away from their core activities. Meanwhile, their employees may feel guilty about asking for more than the minimum as they are aware of the pressures on the budget and the Herculean efforts being made by their colleagues in the fundraising department.
Cathy Corcoran, director of the Cardinal Hume Centre for homeless young people, is acutely aware of this issue. She is currently managing or planning for the absence of four pregnant employees from a staff of 31, but insists "there's nothing wrong with getting pregnant, we need to congratulate people and be clear that it's not just a women's issue. None of us would be here if people didn't get pregnant!"
Corcoran also recognises the need for charities to fulfil the spirit as well as the word of the law regarding parental support. "Any minimum is just that, a minimum," she says. "Our whole purpose is about people's wellbeing and we believe in investing in our staff, so we wouldn't want to offer just the minimum. But we also know we can't be excessive because it is donors' money."
The suspicion that the voluntary sector needs to take this issue more seriously is confirmed by Working Families, a new charity formed by the merger of Parents at Work and New Ways to Work. It offers assistance, resources and guidance to voluntary sector employers and has produced a work/life development pack specifically for charity managers.
Nazrine Humphrey, the voluntary sector project officer, says: "Charities are giving out an image of caring for the community and looking out for the vulnerable, but they also need to make the effort to care for their staff, not least because happy, motivated staff will produce better results for the organisation."
The minority of charities that offer enhanced support for new parents tend to reject the idea of a trade-off between doing well by employees or by funders. These enlightened organisations claim that generous personnel policies contribute to their effective functioning. Samia Alquadhi, chief executive of Breast Cancer Care, who job-shares with a colleague with young children, says: "As a charity it's our responsibility to reflect good practice.
"Rather than counting the immediate costs of offering up to 26 weeks leave on full pay, we take a long-term view that our money will be spent more effectively if staff join us, and stay with us, because we have supportive policies".
Groundwork UK has taken a similar line. The regeneration charity offers up to 18 weeks maternity leave at full pay.
Ranila Ravi, head of communications at Acevo, which uncovered the uncomfortable truth about charities' scrooge-like approach to parental support, says that "third sector organisations must lead the way in promoting a supportive organisational culture".
"Employers should ensure that their staff can achieve a sound work/life balance and staff certainly should not be ostracised for wanting to start a family," she says.
Richard Titmuss, the renowned social policy expert, claimed that the key measure of a society's level of civilisation was how it treated its children. If voluntary organisations are the building blocks of civil society, then a measure of how civilised it is can be found in how we treat the children brought into the world by those working within the voluntary sector.
In 2003, the Government raised state support for new parents, but continues to rely on employers to offer more generous terms. In 2004, we will see if the vast majority of charities prioritise the sensitivities of their donors and continue to offer the bare minimum to new parents among their staff. Or if the new year will see the birth of a more virtuous circle, benefiting charities, donors, staff and society - as well as many thousands of healthy, happy babies.