Friday, 28 March 2014

The smokescreen of charity CEO pay

What charities pay their Chief Executives continues to be a topic grabbing headlines in sector and mainstream media alike here in the UK.

I have to admit, I remain slightly perplexed about the issue. 

Perhaps it’s because my career has been spent mainly dealing with the vast majority of the charity ‘workforce’, the volunteers who get paid nothing; without whom most charities, large and small, would be nothing; and without whom almost nobody who draws a salary in a charity - CEOs included - would have a job. 

Perhaps its because those who do the complex and challenging role of leading and managing volunteers get paid so poorly compared to their peers in, say, fundraising. In fact many are volunteers themselves and their work is essential to the delivery of important services to people across the country.

Either way the charity CEO pay debate rumbles on. And on. And on.

I was struck recently by a piece in Civil Society which reported the shadow charities minister, Lisa Nandy MP, “has warned that charity leadership needs to tackle the problem of unfair pay ratios in charities”.

Once I got over the shock of an MP preaching about pay to a group of charities I read on to discover that this warning was issued in the context of a debate about the future of charities. 

Is this really the most important strategic issue facing the charity world at the moment? I’m not saying it may not be important at all but I can think of many other issues much more worth of attention.

Nandy also apparently criticised charities for taking on an increasing number of unpaid interns, sometimes “with connections to established staff”. Another issue MPs are uniquely qualified to lecture charities on because, as we know, involving unpaid interns, sometimes people with connections to the MP themselves, NEVER happens does it? 

Regardless, if this is happening in the charity sector (and nobody is producing evidence to prove it), then it warrants a better debate that unpaid = bad, paid = good, as I have blogged before.

The debate then seems to have moved into discussion of the ratio between what a charity CEO is paid and what frontline workers are paid. Again, no recognition that the vast majority of frontline workers in charities get no pay at all and so such ratios are totally meaningless! 

But let’s just go with it and assume that frontline workers in charities are all paid.

Cath Bavage, CEO of Volunteer Centre Tower Hamlets, is quoted by Civil Society as saying:

“NCVO sounds pleased with itself that its own ratio of senior executive to lowest-paid staff member is 8:1. Is its chief executive really worth eight times more than an administrator? Does he work hard? Yes, probably. Does he work eight times harder, or does he have eight times more impact? I very much doubt it.”

"Why isn’t NCVO arguing for flatter pay structures and a more even distribution of wages in the voluntary sector? Surely a ratio of 2:1 or 3:1 would be a far better thing in charities with limited funds? It would help reassure donors that their money is being spent prudently and would better reward frontline staff who often work in emotionally demanding jobs. "

To which I would respond:

No, the CEO of NCVO probably doesn’t work eight times harder or have eight times more impact. No CEO does. But pay is not a measure of how hard someone works or how much impact they have. On that basis the volunteer lifeboat crew member would be paid a small fortune for each life they save and we’d have every Samaritan in the country in the top tax bracket. 

[Interestingly, research seems to suggest its not what we pay people but how we pay people that makes a difference.]

Surely what would reassure donors that their money is being spent prudently is whether the organisation makes best use of all the resources at its disposal and, in that broader context, whether salaries are being paid for the right kind of roles and then (finally) at the right kind of levels.

Assume for a minute that we have two organisations doing similar work with similar budgets. As a donor, I would be wanting to ask questions if organisation A was paying someone £20,000 to do a role that Organisation B fulfilled just as well through volunteers. That suggests that rather than exploring all the options for fulfilling its mission, organisation A just paid someone whereas organisation B created a volunteer programme to achieve that goal and used £18,000 (because volunteering may be freely given but it is not cost free) for something else, perhaps paying for someone to do a role that organisation A can’t do because it doesn’t have enough money.

Maybe the reason I feel perplexed about the charity CEO debate is that it appears to be a smokescreen for any kind of real debate about far more important issues. Issues like whether charities are really doing the best with what they have available for the most vulnerable in society, or whether all this talk of charities actually ignores the majority of charities in favour of the minority who receive the biggest slice of charitable income. Surely they are far more important topics to consider when thinking about the future of the sector than government, the sector’s infrastructure bodies and CEOs remaining inwardly focused on what they earn and whether they should earn it?

For some intelligent and informed exploration of the charity CEO pay debate, check out these two pieces from nfpSynergy:

Monday, 24 February 2014

Four ideas for educating new staff about volunteers

One of the regular training gigs I have is to run a half-day 'working with volunteers' seminar for people who are thinking of working in the non-profit sector.  The seminar is part of a course NCVO are contracted to run for people transitioning from a career in the armed forces to civilian life. Over a week it promotes working for civil society organisations as a positive career option and explores some of the key issues organisations and individuals face.

When I was invited to run this seminar for the first time I asked myself 'How often does a chance like this come along?  A chance to positively influence how people outside our sector view volunteers before they take the step of working for a charity?'.  The answer was, to my mind, 'very rarely' and came to me about as quickly as it took for me to say 'yes' to the invitation.

I’m very aware that few of us will get such a chance.  We are more likely to only get an opportunity to influence new paid staff after they have started work for our agencies, sometimes long after they start. Let's face it, meeting with the leader and manager of volunteers comes way down the corporate induction checklist.

So how can we make the most of the opportunity we do have an how can we get more of these opportunities?

Here are four ideas:

1/ And now for something completely different

Give new starters something out of the ordinary that will make them sit up and take notice of the volunteer programme.

In one agency I worked at, new starters were never short of paper at the end of the corporate induction course.  When it came to volunteering, we gave them an audio CD, produced to a professional standard by volunteers, that features real volunteers talking about what they do, why they do it, what they get out of it and why someone else should do it  - in under 10 minutes! It was accessible to all (I worked for a sight loss charity), easy to access, quick to listen to and stood out from the small forest of manuals and processes people were supposed to read at their leisure (but probably never did).

2/ Get a slot on the induction programme for new staff

Ask for a slot on your organisations induction programme. Sell it by setting out the impact of the work your volunteers do and the added value they provide to your organisation. If volunteers are that important why not ensure all new staff have at least a basic knowledge of how you engage volunteers?

Once you have your foot in the door, get new starters to think about their own volunteer work, what it means to those agencies and draw parallels with the importance of volunteers to your organisation.  This will help to root their understanding of your volunteer programme within the context of their own experience rather than just bamboozle them with statistics.

3/ Choose your words carefully

Don’t mislead people with the information you give but don’t use language that will turn people off before you have a chance to get started. Steer clear of anything that might worry new starters about volunteers replacing staff. For example, “our volunteers do all this and only cost us 10% of what it costs to employ people”.  Also be careful about saying how highly motivated and dedicated your volunteers are. It may be true but it often implies that paid staff aren’t motivated and dedicated to the cause.

4/ Do your homework

When middle and senior managers start with an organisation they normally have a series of one-to-one induction meetings arranged with other key managers.  Make sure you are one of them.  Avoid using this meeting to find out what the new manager does - do your homework first and instead spend the time helping them see how volunteers could make a real difference to achieving their objectives.

What ideas do you have?

What has worked for you?

How else could you influence new people so they become supporters of your volunteer programme?

Please comment in the space below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Volunteering and the floods: questions and lessons

As is typical when disaster strikes, volunteers are right there in the front line of relief efforts. The current flooding in the UK is no different. Whilst official agencies are criticised for being slow to act, volunteers are getting on with the job of practical help and support to those affected. 

Note: Nobody is complaining about job substitution now!

This volunteer led support is being woefully under-reported by the bad-news-fixated media. The best example of reporting I could find was from Tuesday when Sky News reported on their website how flood victims were being helped by the ’best of British’

Interestingly, from my searching online this morning I could find little information from the existing volunteering infrastructure - NCVO, volunteer centres etc. - on how people can get involved in flood relief efforts. 

What reference I did find was largely related to pre-existing, formal volunteer roles that require training and official deployment. For example, Do-It make mention of flood volunteering on their site, directing people to the British Red Cross and Community Resilience. Both links send people to information on opportunities that look like ones which don’t really seem geared to people who spontaneously want to help. The Red Cross itself has a news story online about how its volunteers are supporting flood affected communities. This links to information on becoming one of their emergency response volunteers - also a role that requires training.

What about spontaneous volunteering, people just wanting to help because they see a need and want to get involved without going through weeks of training and induction?

Interestingly this is where there was more information, but none of it linked to the existing volunteering infrastructure. Instead the main focus was on a new initiative called Flood Volunteers

Flood Volunteers has been set up by the private sector entrepreneurs behind TaskHub, a site for finding professional services such as plumbing etc.. According to the Metro newspaper and, the Prime Minister asked the founders of TaskHub to set up Flood Volunteers to aid the support efforts. People simply say how they are willing to help and affected people can link up with them for help.

For me all this raises some important questions:

  • Why is the government not turning to the existing volunteering infrastructure for help in deploying spontaneous volunteers? 
  • If it did, does the volunteering infrastructure have the resources to be of help at times like this?
  • What should be the role of national volunteering infrastructure bodies like NCVO and NAVCA (to name just two) in co-ordinating with government and the relevant agencies to ensure the great British public’s spontaneous help is directed most effectively?
  • What plans do the existing volunteering infrastructure have in place so that they are prepared to be of real help in times like this by channeling spontaneous volunteer support to the right places?
  • Who is ensuring that the spontaneous volunteering that is happening is being done safely and actually helping, not hindering, relief efforts? We might not realise it but people wanting to help can actually cause more problems than they alleviate, a situation explored in detail by Jayne Cravens on her webpage, Volunteering To Help After Major Disasters.
  • Who is monitoring whether people actually follow through on the pledges of support? Take a look at this story (again reported by Jayne Cravens) following the floods in Queensland, Australia three years ago where this was an issue.
  • What is being / will be done to see if these spontaneous volunteers who are making a real difference in flood affected communities might want to put their time into volunteering when the flood waters subside?

Quite rightly the focus now is on on helping those affected by the floods. As the efforts move in the coming weeks into cleaning up and moving on, the media will inevitably focus on the lessons learnt from the floods. There will be calls for better flood defences, more funding for flood hit communities, an examination of the political point scoring that seems to be more important to some politicians than helping the people in need.

But will we in the volunteering movement learn any lessons?

Will we be more prepared next time?