How pensions can harm confidence in the sector

We must address the problems we face, but we must also challenge the misconceptions, writes Caron Bradshaw

Caron Bradshaw
Caron Bradshaw

When you talk about pension deficits with charity leaders, you are likely to face one of three reactions: "We're okay" (from employers whose schemes are not in deficit); "Yes, it's very worrying" (from employers with schemes in deficit but who have plans to cover the liabilities); or silence. The only sound from this last group is the trickling of beads of sweat down their faces. They are the unlucky ones who face multiple challenges - large defined-benefit scheme deficits, narrow margins between liabilities and assets held, multi-employer scheme exposure. And that's the tip of the iceberg.

Without being too hysterical, there is a pensions crisis looming in the sector. But I'm not actually talking about the very real pension problems each individual charity could face. I'm referring to the public's reaction.

In June, Iain McSeveny, head of finance at Amnesty International UK, wrote to the pensions minister, Steve Webb, about the problems charities face. When this letter was reported on The Daily Telegraph website, the comments posted beneath made for alarming reading.

Admittedly, the headline - "Charities may use public donations to plug pensions black hole" - probably didn't help. But comments such as "they are more concerned with their own employees' income than doing anything we would call genuinely charitable" and "these 'charities' want ... taxpayers to dig deep to pay for these 'charity workers' to have pensions that we don't have ourselves?" showed a worrying trend. More recently, a Sunday Times headline declared that "Charities rattle their tin for pensions".

I wrote in my last column of 'charity' being on a knife edge. If 'pensions' is that knife, we're in danger of it being plunged deep into the heart of confidence in the sector. The liabilities themselves, frightening though they are, should not kill the majority of us; but the belief of some donors that this situation is a result of mismanagement or waste - coupled with the negative media coverage of chief executives' pay - might render the wound fatal.

Of course, we must address these problems we face, but we must also challenge the misconceptions. We must explain at every opportunity that we're not swilling around in handsome final-salary pension schemes. A multi-employer defined-contribution scheme redefined as a defined-benefit scheme to reflect an element of guarantee doesn't make it a generous final-salary pension, the like of which others can only dream. We must challenge anyone who questions any employment benefit paid to charity employees, irrespective of the topic - 'generous' pay, pensions or any other employment benefits.

In a modern and socially responsible society, are we really saying that charity workers should not be treated fairly? Alongside every other sector, we are facing the consequences of years of unsustainable policies and approaches to retirement. Ask where they'd draw the line - maternity pay?

The real scandal that flows from the pension challenges we face is that a lack of knowledge and - perhaps as importantly - a lack of balanced opinion could result in a false expose killing donor confidence. After all, unlike a consumer purchase or a council tax payment (which equally can plug the pension 'black holes'), donors can choose to withdraw their support. And what would be the true price to society if charities are lost as a result?

Caron Bradshaw, chief executive of the Charity Finance Group

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