Editorial: Transparency is the best response

The sector needs to work harder to get the ethical balance right on pay, writes Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

The torrid time charities have gone through in the past couple of weeks stems essentially from the political backlash against the government's continued ring-fencing of overseas aid. It began with the Daily Telegraph's typically sharp trick of focusing on chief executive pay in the small number of aid charities in the Disasters Emergency Committee. In a quiet August, the story was widely taken up and an unedifying ding-dong ensued.

It was notable, however, that a lot of comment from the sector was not entirely supportive of chief executives and the theme that you have to pay the rate for the job, which is in any case lower than other sectors. There are many in the middle ranks of charities whose pay has been eroded while that of their bosses has not. One cause of a recent staff complaint at Samaritans was that directors were getting substantial rises while inflation was not even covered for everyone else.

The sector needs to work harder to get this ethical balance right on pay, and one sensible move was Sir Stuart Etherington's proposal that the National Council for Voluntary Organisations should work with the Charity Commission to draw up guidelines for trustees on setting executive pay. With hindsight, it's surprising this hasn't been done before now: the subject has long been a hot button.

The whole saga again raises the question of whether enough is being done to inform the public about how large modern charities work. Too much of the sector thinks that transparency means bombarding the public with information about the good they do rather than telling them honestly and clearly about their getting and spending.

The more charities persist in relying on mystique and resist real transparency, the more they hand the initiative to the backwoodsmen who continue to find ways of trying to push them back into the Lady Bountiful ghetto, where everyone is a volunteer, or has a vocation, and the most political thing you're allowed to do is rattle a tin. Alarm bells should be ringing.

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