Stella Smith: The sector needs to be more open to different views

We know that most people in charities are not lining their pockets but we cannot assume others outside the sector do, writes the consultant

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

There is a widely held perception that people work for charities because of their commitment to the cause. Indeed, many people would say being values-led is an essential aspect of charities and is what differentiates us from other organisations. By and large, the sector benefits from this perception. After all, when it's difficult to evidence our effectiveness, we need service users, volunteers, donors, members and partners to trust that we know what we're doing and have their best interests at heart.

It is understandable, then, that headlines about the salaries of senior charity staff make uncomfortable reading. There is a debate to be had about whether it is ethical for so much of charity funds to be directed to paying individuals. But apart from that, what makes these headlines so damaging is that they bring staff motivation into question and, in doing so, cast a shadow over the integrity that is essential to the sector.

Read next: Charity pay study: who are the highest earners?

Those of us in the sector know that the majority of us are not lining our pockets with huge salaries. The big salaries are a feature of multi-million-pound organisations that probably have more in common with corporate enterprises than the voluntary and community sector. There are, in fact, many clever, industrious people doing amazing work for very little, if any, financial reward, and that is where the heart of the sector really is. We know this, but we cannot assume that others outside the sector do, and we need to demonstrate to them that we're listening, understand the issues and can be trusted.

We often jump too quickly to the defence of our existing practice. For example, the usual charity retort of "we need to pay high salaries to get people of the necessary calibre" makes my heart sink. If anything, this response only reinforces doubts about our credibility. For a start, it's not always clear what special qualities people have that justify such expense, and there isn't any evidence that over time high pay results in better performance. It also raises questions about organisational effectiveness. It is, at the very least, a concern if trustees are so dependent on individual staff members that they feel they have to pay them substantial sums. And if charities don't have enough skilled people, surely it makes more sense to invest in developing their staff than to pay senior managers more. We need to stand back and consider whether our existing practice is still right before we jump to its defence.

There are important initiatives that seek to explain how charities work, but they focus on protecting the status quo, with a starting assumption that the public should make the effort to understand the sector better and accept us as we are. These are unlikely to change a public mood that, in recent years, has turned against efforts to defend the established way of doing things, especially when the established way means defending privilege for a few.

If we want to ensure a vibrant, trustworthy sector, charities need to be more open to different views, step outside the sector bubble and get better at understanding the public, whose support we depend on.

Rather than instantly defending what we do, we need to demonstrate that we've heard their concerns and are open to changing the way we operate.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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