The handcuffs of public perception

Handcuffs - sSome of the most debilitating constraints faced by the charity sector have a common root cause. Which implies there could be a common solution if we are collectively willing to take it on.

Take the perennial tabloid beating-stick of sector pay. Third Sector recently published the 100 highest remuneration packages in the sector, and apart from probably a dozen or so outliers, the only surprise for me is that so many of them are so low.

Save the Children International, for instance, raised and spent £980m in 2017, an increase of 5% on the prior year, and rewarded its CEO with a salary of around £230k. In 2018, the entire consumer media arm of the Mail Group Trust, including the Daily Mail, Sunday Mail, Mail Online and Metro papers combined, turned over £650m, yet paid £2.6m total remuneration to editor, Paul Dacre, for presiding over its 4% annual revenue decline.

The hypocrisy of the Daily Mail trashing charities over executive pay might be obvious to us, but it’s not obvious to its readers. A quick scan of the comments below virtually any Mail Online story on charity salaries, evidences that beyond doubt.

The difference is, that we know that large International charities are incredibly complex beasts. We know how critical the likes of safeguarding, governance, rapid response, dynamic resource allocation and technology investments are. We know that the impact of an organisation is directly proportional to the quality of its people and the efficiency of its infrastructure, and that the reward for improving either is invariably worth the investment. Whether CEO, Operations Manager or field Team Leader, good people deserve good money, and they pay it back, many times over, in terms of greater impact.

We know it. But clearly much of the public doesn’t know it, doesn’t want to know it, or has yet to join the dots. Transparency on salaries is entirely laudable, but it’s not a silver bullet for untying the sector’s hands on equitable remuneration. This is not about lack of information, it’s about changing deeply held preconceptions.

The same could be said for the broader topic of infrastructure funding and for the charity recruitment challenge. The “sleepy and unchallenging” myth highlighted by Andrew Hyland at a recent recruitment event is in sharp contrast to my, to Hyland’s, and I expect to most of our experiences in the sector. Sure, we can create better career paths and more attractive posts and better job adverts, but the biggest gap is not between where we are and where we could be; it’s between where we are and where the public thinks we are. Better adverts and selection processes are a good thing, but they’re not a silver bullet for recruitment. This is not a process problem, it’s a problem of public awareness and attitudes.

The irony is, charities are brilliant at raising awareness, at changing public attitudes, at educating and influencing opinion. Yes, there’s a long way still to go, but our track record, from environmentalism and racial discrimination, to LGBT and gender equality, to Autism and mental health, is stunning.

So, what would it take, and how much would it benefit the entire sector, if a sliver of that same expertise were put to work in educating the public from school age upwards, to raise awareness and change attitudes around what charities actually are, how they operate, what they’re like to work for?

How do we engage students not just with volunteering, but with compelling career aspirations? How do we use those same conversations to reposition the concept of “overheads as undesirable”, or worse, as “syphoning off my donation”, towards an appreciation of them as the critical enablers that dramatically increase the impact and effectiveness of every pound received?

Umbrella bodies clearly have a role to play, but so does every representative of every charity that walks into a school or university to talk about their cause. Every contact is an opportunity to shift the dynamic, to unpick the preconception, to narrow the gap between perception and reality. Every conversation is an opportunity to loosen the handcuffs that constrain the sector from investing in its own effectiveness.

The untapped potential for collaboration is an increasingly common thread in sector conversations. I can think of few areas that would repay collaboration more handsomely than this. And so, I make this appeal, to leaders of sector bodies and major charities alike, to put this on your agenda, to think about what you can do, how you can catalyse a concerted effort, to fundamentally change the public perception of charity.

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