Editorial: Public will need some convincing about the rise in top managers' pay

In the text of a speech to be delivered at Cass Business School tonight, Stephen Bubb of the chief executives outfit Acevo coins a memorable phrase.

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

"We are no longer the hippy sector," he says, "and it is time that opinion recognised this."

Anyone who doubts the force of his view has only to look at Acevo's latest salary survey, which we report this week: for the first time, the median salary of chief executives in charities with more than 1,000 staff has risen above £100,000.

There won't be many of that elite group wearing kaftans and sandals, that's for sure - at least, not during the working day. Some of them will have more in common with the leaders of private corporations and large quangos than with the generality of the voluntary sector - indeed, some of them will have worked in those other sectors in the past, or are likely to do so in the future.

Most people closely acquainted with the charity world will not be too shocked or surprised by the figures. They want the sector to profit from the best talent, and they know that many of the individuals concerned could earn more in other sectors, but choose to stay in the voluntary sector because they are committed to its causes and values: the new chief executives of Macmillan Cancer Support and the St Giles Trust, both recent denizens of the City, might be cases in point.

Most friends of the sector can probably also just about grin and bear the eye-watering £550,000 salary paid to the music director of the Royal Opera House, the charitable status of which has been under debate in these pages in recent weeks.

But it's not to the friends of the sector that the advance in top salaries will have to be sold. Past surveys have shown that members of the public are sceptical about the propriety of charity chiefs getting six-figure salaries and driving Mercedes. There will always be people, both inside and outside the sector, who take the Neanderthal approach and say that all work for charities should be unpaid, no matter what, but they're not the ones to worry about here. There are plenty of people, well-informed about the world and sympathetic to the growing professionalisation of charities, who still need some convincing that salaries should go much higher than they already are. It's a sensitive area in terms of public relations, and the sector needs to be open about what is happening and argue the case carefully.

The Acevo survey also touches on the ticklish question of the payment of trustees over and above any expenses they incur, which is a far more controversial subject. At the moment, charities that want to pay chairs and trustees have to make a good case to the Charity Commission, and the numbers that do it are small.

Of the respondents to the survey, 15 per cent said they needed to remunerate trustees, while 79 per cent said they did not. That last figure is the one to focus on, and if the poll had covered the wider public it would probably have been even higher. There are many people who regard the payment of trustees as an abhorrent infringement of the voluntary spirit and who will take a lot of convincing that the rare exceptions to the rule should become more frequent.

Stephen Cook is editor of Third Sector

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