Emma Russ: Why I am a proud 'overhead' cost

The latest national media attack on the charity sector once again misses the point

Emma Russ
Emma Russ

The charity sector has recently been the subject of another charity-shaming article in the national press. The piece in The Mail on Sunday bemoaned the amount some charities pay their chief executives and accused them of having unreasonably high admin costs.

As if the article was not damaging enough, it led to a flurry of tweets and comments on social media. One even said: "Nobody working for a charity should be paid more than £25,000." *Eye roll*.

If you haven’t watched Dan Pallotta’s Ted Talk "Why the way we think about charity is dead wrong", then would I highly recommend you do. (We watched it in a team meeting and it went down a storm.)

Pallotta eloquently and passionately explains why such negative articles about charities undermine all the amazing work that our sector does. In fact, it’s articles like this that stop us from changing the world.

As charities, we are held to a completely different set of standards to those of the private sector. Pallotta argues, for example, that we encourage people to make millions from selling video games and music (we even put them on the front of magazines), but we treat those trying to raise large sums of money to help children with cancer as parasites.

How many hours has your charity spent trying to work out what percentage of a £1 donation goes directly to your beneficiaries? Don’t the finance team, communications team, cleaners and everything else you might think of as an overhead cost exist to help your beneficiaries too? Doesn’t fundraising exist so that you can help even more beneficiaries than your finances currently allow?

How many of your donors have requested that their donations go straight towards the cause and are not spent on advertising? Have you ever taken the time to explain that if we did spend their donations on advertising we could recruit 100 event participants who would go on to multiply their original donation amounts?

Pallotta rightly argues that until we change such attitudes we’ll never succeed in solving large social problems.

Tackling issues such as homelessness or cancer is by no means a simple task, so why on earth shouldn’t we strive to have the very best people leading our organisations to solve these huge social problems?

Cancer alone kills millions of people every year, yet I’m sat here reading an article in a national newspaper that’s trying to tell me the chief executive of a cancer charity gets paid too much. I have no doubt that that chief executive is confident, talented, passionate and determined to make a difference. Such people should not be viewed merely as overhead costs.

Charities need talented leaders. They need people with ambition and drive to take them forward.

Collectively, we need to help society understand that a charity overhead shouldn’t be seen as a negative. If we can change the way people think about charity, we can change the world.

I want to be remembered for changing the world, not for keeping overheads low. That’s why I am a proud overhead cost.

Emma Russ is fundraising and communications manager at Galloway’s Society for the Blind

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