Open season on the ‘charito-crats’

It might partly be the time of year, but everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon of the Daily Telegraph’s survey of the salaries of chief executives of the big aid charities.

First William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, chose to throw fuel on the fire with his remarks about risk to reputation; this brought an equally inflammatory riposte from Sir Stephen Bubb, and then the international development secretary Justine Greening started talking about transparency in charities (which is a different, though arguably related, subject.)

By this morning the Telegraph was fuming about the betrayal of volunteers and donors and inventing a new class of hate-figure called “charito-crats.” There are so many agendas flying about that it’s hard to know where to start.

Well, how about in the calmer waters of the Today programme’s Thought for the Day? This morning the Rev Canon Angela Tilby of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, also climbed on the bandwagon, partly to challenge Bubb’s use of the Biblical phrase “the labourer is worthy of his hire.” She was, essentially, siding with Shawcross, saying charity leaders should walk the walk and be a bit more humble and selfless. “A charity is not a business or an investment opportunity,” she declared.

But surely that’s exactly where she and the charito-crat bashers are wrong. The big charities, turning over hundreds of millions, are essentially non-profit businesses and need to be run as such by high-calibre leaders. If they weren’t run professionally, there would be far greater cause for concern than the level of senior salaries, which are lower in the voluntary sector than in most private sector businesses of comparable size.

This is essentially one of those periodic outbursts, which have become more common since the Coaltion came to power, from those who have a political aversion to charities delivering public services or receiving government money. Their modus operandi is to attack them by invoking romantic, sentimental and reactionary conceptions of charity – they should all be volunteers, they should not campaign, they should be more humble and so on. It might be harder for the critics to do that if we could find and agree on a new name, and perhaps a new legal and taxation framework, for these big non-profit businesses, thus detaching them from the word ‘charity’ and all the baggage it brings with it.