Poor practices such as paying senior managers handsomely at the expense of front-line workers, zero-hours contracts and "heavy-handed managerialism" have become so widespread in the voluntary sector that they are considered normal, according to a new working paper.
More for Less, published by the National Coalition for Independent Action, looks at the effects of public sector outsourcing and spending cuts on voluntary sector workplace conditions and the role of trade unions in dealing with problems in charities.
It argues that the cumulative impact of cuts and outsourcing has placed huge pressures on charities in a "race to the bottom" that has subjected workers to lower pay and worse conditions.
"Job security within voluntary sector groups is poor and getting worse," the report says. "The sector has the lowest proportion of employees on permanent contracts."
The paper, written by the social policy researcher Rosie Walker and the voluntary sector activist Frances Sullivan, is based on in-depth interviews with six trade union officials – three in senior positions and three workplace organisers – plus material from journals and the authors’ personal experiences.
It says: "All our respondents spoke of increased bullying, stress and heavy-handed management – often from repeat offenders known within an organisation for bullying.
"Outside observers sometimes point to a misplaced belief that people working for charities are automatically ‘nice’, suggesting that people are less likely to recognise or report bullying as a result."
The report says that many big charities that used to criticise and campaign fiercely against unfair government policies now take a much softer approach because they are fearful of losing favour with politicians.
It says these charities are increasingly seen as a training ground for future MPs and government advisers, "many of whom see the chance to practice ‘power play’ as training for the power games of Westminster".
Respondents said that any kind of activism outside their work in charities was treated with suspicion and contempt by management, the report says. One person said they lost a job offer after the charity found out they were vegan; another said they knew someone who had lost their job at an advice charity after mentioning they were part of a tenants’ rights group.
"The word activism is feared and distrusted by managers even in campaigning charities – perhaps because they cannot understand why someone would do such things outside of a professional context," says the report.