Russell Hargrave: Should we fight or flee from the fat-cat salary jibes?

Big charities that do difficult and essential work shouldn't have to apologise for paying decent salaries to make sure that happens

Russell Hargrave
Russell Hargrave

I have always had a secret longing to work for the Salvation Army.

This is, in part, a result of childhood nostalgia (I have passed beyond my mid-30s, so I reckon it is OK to talk about nostalgia). Late-night Christmas shopping trips are exciting enough as a child, and in my fond memories the Sally Army brass band is always there in Cardiff city centre, adding some musical accompaniment to the seasonal excitement.

Mainly, though, it comes from the desire, as a professional grown-up, for the easy life. The Salvation Army really doesn’t have to worry about the question of "fat-cat pay", one that has dogged charities for years now.

The head of the Salvation Army – surely the only person in the voluntary sector with the title Territorial Leader – is never going to appear on Third Sector’s list of top earners in the charity sector, the latest instalment of which came out last week. The reason is simple: as a matter of principle, the leader’s pay is capped at £15,500. Other staff are paid more, but still far below figures that would command much controversy.

The Salvation Army spent more than £180m on good work last year, according to the Charity Commission's register. Such modest remuneration for the person in charge reflects the organisation’s religious underpinnings. The work is a vocation, even a calling, and cash doesn’t come into it.

This is an admirable commitment from people at one charity. But it spells trouble for the rest of us.

Not all charities can behave like this; neither should they. (I have even heard charity leaders grumble about the Sally Army, worried that low pay there hangs them out to dry when it comes to their own salaries.)

As has been said often enough, the biggest modern charities are complex beasts, employing thousands of people to try to unpick the most challenging problems we face. At the extreme end, individual UK-based charities are doing this in countries all over the globe.

In other words, there is nothing wrong with hefty salaries for dealing day-in day-out with such challenges. Nothing at all.

All of which poses a knotty comms problem. Do we ignore the "fat-cat" jibes and get on with the job at hand? Or do we come out fighting?

To be fair, the sector shows more appetite for this fight than we sometimes give credit. The big international charities on the front line of these public rows, such as Oxfam and Save the Children, have led the way with a robust defence of everything they do for people who need them. 

Yet this could be even more proactive. Voluntary groups talk often enough about the thing that "set us apart" from the private and public sectors, and this feels like a chance to draw that distinction even more clearly.

In my more excitable moments, I imagine what this would look like.

A feature in The Times, with a portrait photo of a grave-looking charity chief exec staring down the barrel of the lens at readers.

"My team have travelled into war zones this year to save kids from starvation and dysentery," the key quote would read. "We were the first on the scene when families of refugees needed clean clothes and healthy food. And, yes, I got paid for making sure this happened and that my staff stayed safe. What did you do for your salary?"

Now that would be refreshing. If anyone is thinking of running that comms strategy, sign me up.

Russell Hargrave is press manager at the independent trust Power to Change

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