Dowshan Humzah: Why is charity viewed as the private and public sectors’ poor relation?

The Covid-19 pandemic helped to spell out the true value of charities. It is now time to push for greater recognition and improved perception

What do people think when someone says that they work for a charity? They work for free. They have a good heart. They could not get a proper job.

It is rare to hear people – even careers advisors – champion the charity sector as a place to build careers when young people are progressing from education into work.

There is plenty of talk about other professions, trades and entrepreneurship. I believe that ‘reality TV star’ also ranks highly as a career choice among young people now.

But despite the clear fact that the charity sector has much to offer in terms of the drivers of a decent job – career progression, challenge and ultimately (what many may feel they could have done more of) serving and supporting others – it is often overlooked.

Why is it not a more popular option? Perception, pay and prestige may have much to do with it. After all, we live in a culture where metrics define most things. Pay has become a measure of success and perception: in some eyes, the more you earn the more you’re valued.

But not everything that matters can be measured – and not everything that we can measure matters.

In the third year of a global pandemic that shows few signs of abating, we continue to be ruled by volatility, uncertainty and complexity. Disruption is the new normal.

This environment has created greater polarisation and widening inequalities that particularly affect the most underestimated, underrepresented and underserved groups in our society.

But the pandemic may have helped us define who are the real ‘masters of the universe’. They are not the self-proclaimed high-earning bankers, who (let us not forget) required government bailouts when the going got a bit tough during the financial crisis of 2008.

The true key workers – healthcare professionals, retailers, environmental workers, carers and the army of charity workers – are the ones who kept our nation going and supported the many millions of vulnerable and underestimated folk.

When private and public sector provision fails to keep pace with demand, those who work in civil society, particularly charities, do what they always do: step up and step in to carry out vital work, often without recognition.

So, while the media and our rather privileged gatekeepers have much to shoulder for the perception of the charity sector, we must also look at what charities themselves can control.

This includes strong governance and supporting the wellbeing and professional development of charity employees and volunteers.

The sector could also provide a greater focus on the value of the services it delivers, and the hope and optimism offered to those who are vulnerable and underestimated.

Rather than being perceived as a home for those who wish to volunteer or ‘may not have been good enough for other sectors’, the charity sector needs to improve its narrative, highlight its impact and champion and reward its people.

This isn’t a question of big private and public organisations compared to large charities, or the millions of small private-sector limited companies vs hundreds of thousands of small charities – it is a sector-wide issue.

Skills are transferable, and we often talk about folk from private or public sectors who choose to go into the charity sector.

But it is a two-way street, and there is so much these sectors can learn from those in the charity world.

It should not be seen as a stepping stone – which, in my experience of non-executive roles, it is sometimes positioned as. How wrong this view is, given the needs, challenges and risks in a society where we need the best talent to solve the most pressing problems.

I have heard it said that if Lehman Brothers was Lehman Sisters, it might not have collapsed.

I often think that if banks and professional service firms were run by those from the charity sector, with their end-user focus, service and their values record, then we may not have had the financial crisis of 2008.

Dowshan Humzah is an independent board director and strategic adviser, and chair of Overcoming MS

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