Wally Harbert: Whitehall insiders from big charities partly to blame for the current crisis

Too many charity chief executives lack knowledge of the cause and the necessary leadership skills, writes our columnist

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

Earlier this year, William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, said the fundraising scandal had tipped charities into a crisis. Few agreed, but the Fundraising Standards Board reports more than 1,000 complaints a week and Sir Stuart Etherington has just recommended in his review of fundraising a new, tougher system of fundraising self-regulation. So there is clearly something seriously wrong. I would argue that the fundraising scandal is a symptom of a wider malaise of crisis proportions.

An examination of the biographies of leaders of national charities shows that, increasingly, they are not so much charity workers as career administrators who happen to wash up in prestigious jobs with charities.

You might expect someone heading a big children’s charity to be a national or international expert on children’s health, care or education, able to speak with authority on the needs of children. But he or she may have no relevant qualification and lack any experience of working in children’s services. The same is true in other specialties.

I have never been able to work myself into a passion against the unfairness of appointing unpaid charity interns. If we cannot have experienced professionals to run charities, I want people who make a personal sacrifice to work in the sector by starting at the bottom.  I prefer this to a sector run by career administrators attracted by the glamour and the status at the top.

It is no accident that most excesses by charities causing public concern are perpetrated by large, national organisations that often rely heavily on government funding. Trustees of these charities seek chief executives who are Whitehall insiders. But they cannot offer professional leadership to staff or understand the dirty end of the service they run.

When ministers, senior civil servants and charity leaders all come from the same social, educational and employment silo, it is time to be concerned. Too much talent is being excluded.

The disdain some national charities show towards their donors is matched by the disdain they have for local communities. Researchers have described them as predatory, showing little understanding of the communities they serve, grabbing short-term government funding with no exit strategy when the money runs out, creating anger and distrust locally. Predictably, spokespersons for chief executives pour scorn on the big society which would empower local groups.

Like bankers, with no clear values to guide them, when one exploits a loophole, others follow for fear of being left behind in the rat-race.

The background of some charity leaders helps to explain the extraordinary energy they devote to pressurising the government to relax regulations on lobbying. This is the territory many of them know best. Government ministers tell them to stick to their knitting but some have never learned to knit. The status and glamour of lobbying is a great lure to leaders with no background in service provision.

The law of supply and demand is remorseless. As trustees search for chief executives with experience of working with national politicians, the pool of acceptable candidates narrows and salaries rocket; other chief executives on modest incomes, unfairly, receive collateral damage from public criticism.

The meteoric rise and fall of Kids Company demonstrates the possibilities and perils of cosying-up to government. The biggest tragedy about its collapse is that it will reinforce the view of some trustees that the skill they most need in a chief executive is an ability to woo civil servants and government ministers.

The concept of charity is being tarnished. From Shawcross’s perspective this must seem like watching a train crash which the commission is powerless to prevent. Now this really is a crisis.

Wally Harbert is a retired charity chief executive

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