Peter Stanford: Give worried staff a hearing and reasons to be cheerful

Trustees need to get more involved in boosting morale within our charities, says our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

It is easy to get gloomy right now, what with the state of the economy, the seemingly never-ending round of spending cuts and tightened domestic budgets. A sense of perspective can be hard to summon up, especially if you are trying to raise much-needed funds in this frosty climate to answer ever-escalating needs.

The warning signs are everywhere, but one in particular caught my eye. Charity employees' morale has hit an all-time low, according to the annual survey carried out by Third Sector and Birdsong Charity Consulting. Those in good spirits dropped from 43 per cent last year to 29 per cent this time around. In the past five years, it has been as high as 50 per cent.

The reasons aren't hard to discern. The same survey reveals that half of respondents have had their pay frozen, and that only 56 per cent would recommend their organisation as an employer - last year, it was 70 per cent.

Morale boost

There isn't much trustees can do about the economic climate, but we can get more involved in boosting morale within our charities in what is starting to feel like a marathon of austerity. A practical approach is best, so if employees are sounding a bit disgruntled and downhearted, why not meet them face to face? The simple act of being heard by someone in authority - with a little more distance than your line manager - can be a tonic.

The danger, of course, is that trustees risk being seen as undermining the senior management team. The key is how such get-togethers are presented and what steps are taken afterwards. Is this an opportunity to tell tales about the chief executive? Absolutely not. Is it a chance to raise concerns about the slowdown and future prospects? Yes. Is it a forum for suggesting how things might be done more effectively? Why not? To borrow a phrase from the government - but in this case to mean it and to show we mean it - we are all in this together.

Trustees can too often appear as detached from this mantra as the chancellor is from Cornish pasties. As we don't rely on drawing a wage from our charities, that air of distance can be exacerbated. We might be as passionate about the success of the charity as staff are, but if redundancies have to be made or wages frozen, it doesn't hit us in our pockets.

But that essential gap between the trustee board and the shop floor can be turned into a positive factor. It allows us to articulate the long view, especially if we're so long in the tooth that we have seen crises come and go. In the dark days of the early 1990s, with the fag end of Thatcherism and then the recession under John Major, I remember walking around the crumbling Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, on whose campus the charity I chaired was based, and thinking the whole place was going to rack and ruin. It felt absolutely hopeless. There seemed no prospect of the government providing funding to save it - that just wasn't what Thatcherism was about. Two decades later, the hospital is thriving, thanks to the support of central government, and is about to be rebuilt. The impossible becomes possible. The crisis without end becomes a dim and distant memory.

Brighter prospects

Perspective is not the only thing that trustees can provide. Another recent survey suggests that, unlike employees of charities, we are taking an upbeat view of the future. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations found that senior staff and trustees are less pessimistic about the coming year than they were three months earlier, even if only by four percentage points. If that is how we view it, we seem to be doing a bad job at conveying that message to the shop floor.

I'm not suggesting here that trustees should be like mascots or comfort blankets in times of crisis. Still less should we peddle false hope and tell employees with concerns for their own futures to stop stressing because all will be well - "trust me, I'm a trustee". Rather, what we need to do right now is take seriously and act on our duty of care for our charities and those who work in them.

These are tough times and spirits are low. We need to be willing to roll up our sleeves and find immediate ways of listening to those worries, taking them seriously and being as frank, open and accessible as we can about our projections for the future of our charities. It can make a difference.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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