In the last week or two, emergency relief charities have been pummelled by national news outlets over their payment of chief executives. But they haven’t exactly come out swinging in their own defence. Instead, they’ve put their gloves up, leaned on the ropes, and taken the punches.
Trustees take the decisions on senior pay, but only one trustee seems to have anything to say about it – Bishop John Arnold of Cafod, who justified salaries in his charity. So the sector leadership appears to consist of one bishop and a congregation of Trappist monks.
It doesn’t look good. It appears most trustees aren’t willing to justify their those decisions. Frankly, it makes them look weak.
Nor is this first time this has happened. The sector has a similar track record of failing to defend fundraisers when the spotlight has swung onto their practices – something which so infuriated Mark Astarita, fundraising director of the British Red Cross, that he used his keynote speech at this year’s Institute of Fundraising convention to tear into the sector’s leaders, labelling them “cowards” and claiming they have “run for the hills with their petticoats showing”.
I understand the thinking of trustees in these situations. I personally wouldn’t want to face the national media, with their ability to twist any debate to suit their own agenda. I wouldn’t want them looking into my own past. I’d look with trepidation at the one guy who did go on the offensive, Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, who’s taken some brutal punishment in the past week, including repeated jabs about spending charitable funds on his birthday party.
From a tactical point of view, I’m sure these charities are also worried that by engaging in a debate they will prolong the discussion and focus attention on their own charity.
I think this is the wrong attitude, though.
It’s clear the public are unhappy about many things charities do – particularly executive pay, fundraising tactics, and administration costs – and that the sector needs to make its case better that it should spend money on this stuff.
The frustrating thing is that for the most part, these things are defensible. The sector is spending its money well. The public can be convinced if they have all the information at their disposal.
But the sector needs to get on the front foot. I don’t think charities are going to win the public over by just taking the body blows and waiting for the bell.