Martyn Drake: Professional or amateur - why language and perception are important

It's a huge problem that some people still believe that charities should be the exclusive domain of the kind-hearted amateur

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

When hearing the views of someone who has been active with more than 300 charities across many decades, it behoves one to listen and learn from that wealth of experience. But it doesn’t mean one has always to agree.

At the Hinton Lecture last month, Princess Anne made several great points backed by personal examples. She spoke of the problems that arise when organisations bid for contracts of which they have little understanding and even less experience. And she highlighted how those same charities can get manoeuvred into deploying volunteers as cheap replacements for public sector workers.

She also warned against the professionalisation of the sector. I was with her right up to that point.

I suspect the princess was concerned about a wholesale shift away from volunteers and towards paid staff, a concern that I could understand. But that’s not what she said.

Language is incredibly important, and professional does not simply mean "paid". Professional implies someone who is, according to any thesaurus, adept, accomplished, an expert or authority in their field. The antonym of professional is not volunteer; it is amateur. This misunderstanding goes to the heart of all the earlier observations that she’d made and, indeed, goes far beyond her commentary.

It might be the public perception that charities should be run by volunteers, that the chief executives of £100m-turnover non-profits should be paid no more than £30,000 a year and that any full-time staff should predominantly be well-meaning amateurs, presumably drawn from that narrow demographic of retirees, the independently wealthy and those with a particular penchant for hair shirts. That doesn’t mean the public perception is right, because it’s patently not.

Imagine if Oxfam’s response to the safeguarding scandal had been to recruit a cadre of people to design and police new global policies, and explained that they would all be amateurs: they wouldn’t be paid or necessarily have the required skills or get any training, but they’d be very passionate and keen. It is these types of example that pop those preconceptions.

We want charities to be centred on their beneficiaries, to look after their people, to stand as exemplars for society: compassionate, caring, morally governed and ethically driven. But to achieve that, we need them to be well led, efficient and effective, to strive for the greatest positive impact they can have with the means at their disposal and to have the skills and acumen to quickly spot and react to bad practice, bad commissioning and a badly drawn contract when they see one.

It is obvious therefore, that we need skilled professionals in the sector: fundraisers who are expert in ethical fundraising, accountants who are adept at charity law, leaders and middle-managers who are accomplished at getting the very best from their teams and, to the princess’s point, commercial professionals and executives who know what they’re doing when they’re bidding for and agreeing to contracts.

Whether they’re paid or unpaid is irrelevant, although it’s unlikely they’ll all volunteer for free.

Purpose and professionalism are no more mutually exclusive than commerciality and conscience. They are mutually supportive, as myriad B-corps and successful social enterprises can amply demonstrate. It’s a big problem that some sections of the public still don’t get this, that they believe charities are, and should remain, the exclusive domain of the kind-hearted amateur.

But it’s another thing entirely when people within the sector choose language that reinforces such inanity.

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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