If you want charities you can trust you will have to pay up
Staff in charities should not be expected to work for less than their value
“There are almost 10,000 registered charities in Ireland, providing vital services that wrap around what is provided by the State.”
The past few years have been tough for many charities and especially tough for people who work and volunteer for charities. Like many other pillars of Irish society – politics, banks, the church, public trust in charities has seen a decline.
For each grouping, there have been reasons. An economic crash precipitated by unchecked property-price and credit explosions, unforeseen by our politicians; and the exposure of institutional abuse over many decades, often told in compelling terms by those who were abused.
Why did trust decline in charities? For decades, at home and abroad, Irish charities represented the best aspects of Irish life and society – a desire for altruism, community support and cohesion. They were often set up or expanded because the State historically had left gaps in social provision and required or enabled others to step up to close the gap.
While the charitable and voluntary sector has always formed a key part of Irish society, much of it went unregulated and was, at times, unaccountable. For sure, some had bad or loose governance and totally inadequate measures to prevent abuse of funding.
But were the failings of a few so serious that the sector as a whole got tarred with the brush of untrustworthiness? There is a good case to argue that the beating the sector has endured (mainly from the media and politicians) was unfair and disproportionate.
But it’s up to each sector to rebuild trust with the public. And there is reason to believe that the charity sector is recovering ground. A representative survey undertaken by Amárach for Charities Institute Ireland earlier this year suggested that some limited progress has been made on improving trust levels. Thirty-one per cent of the public now have some level of trust in charities – up 7 per cent on the comparable 2017 figure. Those indicating some level of distrust fell from 47 per cent to 41 per cent in the same period. Progress, but still a way to go, and as a sector we must look at ourselves to lead that fight back.
The Amárach research also highlighted contradictory public views on pay within the charity sector. While seven in 10 agreed that charities should get the best professionals to work for them, only five out of 10 think charities need to pay competitive wages to recruit the best people to work for them. Four in 10 think wages in the sector are too high. More than a third feel senior managers in charities should be paid less that their equivalent in the private sector.
Given the obsession that some parts of the media have with the salaries of charity chief executives, it is hardly surprising that many Irish people want their charities to be like the GAA, professional and amateur at the same time. Wanting compliance with the highest standards of service provision, data protection and accountability but unwilling to support charities paying for the professionals who are needed to ensure these standards are met. We need to make a better case for professionalising the sector.
The Government has contributed to this contradictory approach. It effectively imposed Fempi (financial emergency measures in the public interest) pay cuts on section 39 organisations which are grant-aided by the Health Service Executive to provide services mainly in the health and social services arena. But then refused to fund the restoration of those pay cuts when public servants were getting their pay increased.
Many charities carry heavy responsibilities to users in terms of the quality of care and the need to provide professional-level services. Doing that often requires dedicated and professional staff and finding these people in the current labour market is getting more and more difficult. Staff working for charities have mortgages and bills to pay, the same as every other citizen, and should not be expected to work for less than their value.
We need to explain that the putting of resources into marketing and fundraising by charities is not an overhead which wastes donors’ money. Instead it is an investment in growing charities’ income base to the ultimate benefits of their service users. The ferocious drive to always deliver for their service users in times when resources have been cut to the bone has created an innovative culture within Irish charities which has gone far beyond what many thought could be done. In spite of this, the tolerance level from critics for innovation within the charity sector is incredibly low.
When the salaries in charities are being thrashed by sections of the media, it might be worth comparing the impact those charities have on Irish society with the impact which high-paid executives, media personalities or sportspeople have. It’s important that any discussion about salaries recognises the impact the sector has, and what a world without charities would look like.
There are almost 10,000 registered charities in Ireland, providing vital services that wrap around what is provided by the State, from health, housing, social support, investments in community supports, mental health, the environment and much more. For the most part these are trying to solve critical societal issues.
We want the public and politicians to give charities a break and help them to deepen their impact and focus on providing the critical programmes, services and research that they provide. We will also endeavour to challenge unfair criticism and make a stronger case for the sector and the impact it is having on a daily basis.
Liz Hughes is chief executive of Charities Institute Ireland