Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Because I'm Worth It

How often do you hear the phrase "because I'm worth it" in the context of charity chief executive pay? The "Biwi" mentality is now thoroughly enmeshed in the fabric of the third sector. I'm all for "professionalisation" and business disciplines, but what this doesn't extend to is the idea that third sector CEOs should be treated like their "equivalents" in the public and private sectors, or that charities feel they must offer bumper salaries to attract the top management talent.

Let's get the equivalence bit out of the way first. There is no real equivalence. My dad, a director of a highly successful international sales business, gets a fat salary (in the good years). If things go well, he leans hard on the chairman for a big bonus. And so would I in his shoes, because in next year's recession, he might be out on his arse.

What about the public sector? Again, no equivalence here either. Its senior people have a much crappier time than most CEOs in the third sector. How would you fancy running the Child Support Agency? Or HMP Wormwood Scrubs? No, thought not. These jobs are the employment equivalent of having the contents of your wheelie bin poured over your head, be it from the media, politicians or, occasionally, a member of the public. Huge problems. No solutions. Heart attack material.

Now, the third sector. First of all, many CEO jobs are actually quite nice. Everyone loves charities and thinks you're a saint for working in one. You can pretty much pick and choose what is either above or beneath your charity to undertake. There's no proper media scrutiny and everyone feels sorry for you if you screw things up and the charity hits hard times.

OK, getting the money in is a pain, but hell, if you're any good, it's always achievable. And yes, things sometimes go badly wrong in charities (a spat with your chair, occasional redundancies, a life-sapping employment tribunal), but charities seldom go rapidly down the tubes leaving you on Job Seeker's Allowance. In short, many charity CEO jobs are a walk in the park compared with senior jobs elsewhere.

So, that's equivalence out of the way. Let's talk about the money and motivation. What makes third sector organisations distinctive is that they are not just in business to deliver good human services for profit. I have the highest regard for some profit-making companies' achievements, but if there were not serious money to be made from helping people, these organisations wouldn't exist. That, for me, is still the line between the private and third sectors.

What sets our sector aside is mission and motivation. The missions of our organisations are, in effect, the response of civil society to an issue or need. People join our organisations to express their support, either as donors, volunteers, staff, trustees or, yes, chief executives.

If recruited to a charity, therefore, you are not just a hired gun. Your acceptance of the top job is an ethical decision. And as such, you should be happy to take a big hit financially, because you're in a job aligned with your values.

Nobody's saying a charity CEO should get 20k (as some of the public seem to believe). But neither should you be paid silly money either. Nor should you use interest from elsewhere to bid yourself up. If someone tells me they've been offered more elsewhere, I suggest that they follow the money elsewhere. Because if they felt anything for our mission, they would take a reasonable salary and get over themselves.

Obeisance to money-driven hiring practices is where I think some charities have got it wrong. It feels like it's going the way of local government, where the big CEO jobs now offer £200k. This is increasingly seen as the "price for talent". Yet this is nonsense. Big pay guarantees nothing. More than any other, our sector needs leaders who inspire passion, not envy. People who embody the cause. My fear is that our major charities will end up recruiting bloodless accountant-types on supersonic salaries who see the CEO job as a numbers game. Our volunteers, staff and trustees need and deserve better than that.

So next time you hear some variant of Biwi, ask that person if they are worthy of their organisation

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