Peter Stanford: In difficult times, staff are a charity's strongest weapon

Cutting wages should be a charity's last resort, our columnist argues

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

The employment picture is pretty bleak right now, especially in the 18 to 25-year-old group.

The old complaint that youth unemployment was caused by too many school-leavers not having sufficient qualifications can no longer be trotted out.

Today's world is awash with 21-year-olds with good degrees searching desperately for work. I get letters from friends' children, from friends of friends, from complete strangers, trying to find someone who might know of an opening where they can get unpaid work experience as a first step.

And, yes, I know all about the inequalities of internships and the who-you-know jobs market, but it is the sheer human misery of the current situation that really gets me.

One law graduate told me that she had just been among 125 who applied for one two-week, unpaid internship at a law firm in suburban south-west London.

 

A price not worth paying

Those who remain robust about this being precisely the medicine our economy needs to rid it of structural debt tend to bat away such concerns about youth unemployment as a price worth paying.

By 2014, the argument goes, it will all be fine again, because after bust comes boom and a general election. Hardly very comforting if you are worrying about how you are ever going to pay off your student debts.

The tough-it-out brigade are also very hot on the idea that the current excess of young, well-qualified supply allows employers to cut costs by filling more expensive senior posts with cheaper graduates who will learn fast, or by swapping paid roles in hard-pressed organisations with volunteers. Is this what the big society now means?

We in the third sector, of course, are facing the same economic pressures as everyone else to reduce overheads. Many of us are also dealing with a downturn in revenue. And so, inevitably, the temptation is there to wonder if some of these 'market adjustments' in restructuring our labour force might now also be applied in-house.

I applaud as loudly as anyone the transformation in the world of charities from the old, slightly amateurish norms of 20 or 30 years ago to those of today, which enable us to do more. But I have always been wary of the line that third sector organisations are essentially just like any other business.

We have a special and unique bond that links donors and recipients, trustees and staff. That bond means trustees balancing several sometimes competing claims.

What charities are first and foremost about is working with and for their target groups. Many moons ago, my first (and best) mentor in how to run a strong charity told me to remember that the cause is bigger than any individual who happens to work for it.

For example, trustees can never allow a malfunctioning chief executive to remain in post, even if we like that person enormously and can see they are doing their very best, because the consequence of us doing so is that the charity is able to help fewer people.

 

Put beneficiaries first

How does that key principle feed through when it comes to considering staff pay and conditions in the current straightened times? If we are to put beneficiaries first, at a time when income is falling and demands for our services rising, then the hard-nosed might insist that we cut back staff costs so as to make our money go further in what we can deliver.

But that is where all this economic cruel-to-be-kind pragmatism comes unstuck for me. It may make good 'market' sense, but I believe a charity's strongest weapon in raising money for its work and delivering first-class services is its staff. They have to be professional, dedicated and - something not confined to the third sector but arguably more often found here than elsewhere - utterly passionate.

As trustees, we have to foster that passion and reward it. You don't do that by cheese-paring the wages bill, replacing experienced heads with graduates and bringing in volunteers to do what used to be paid roles.

It may be what the rest of the world is doing, but charities are different. We expect more of our staff, and in return they expect more of us as trustees than dogmatic cost-cutting - unless there is absolutely no alternative.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, chair of Aspire and director of the Longford Trust

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