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The Whitehall insiders leading charities are partly to blame for the fundraising crisis

Earlier this year, William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, said the fundraising scandal had tipped charities into a crisis. Few agreed, but the Fundraising Standards Board reports more than 1,000 complaints a week and Sir Stuart Etherington has just recommended in his review of fundraising a new, tougher system of fundraising self-regulation. So there is clearly something seriously wrong. I would argue that the fundraising scandal is a symptom of a wider malaise of crisis proportions.

An examination of the biographies of leaders of national charities shows that, increasingly, they are not so much charity workers as career administrators who happen to wash up in prestigious jobs with charities.

You might expect someone heading a big children’s charity to be a national or international expert on children’s health, care or education, able to speak with authority on the needs of children. But he or she may have no relevant qualification and lack any experience of working in children’s services. The same is true in other specialties.

I have never been able to work myself into a passion against the unfairness of appointing unpaid charity interns. If we cannot have experienced professionals to run charities, I want people who make a personal sacrifice to work in the sector by starting at the bottom.  I prefer this to a sector run by career administrators attracted by the glamour and the status at the top.

It is no accident that most excesses by charities causing public concern are perpetrated by large, national organisations that often rely heavily on government funding. Trustees of these charities seek chief executives who are Whitehall insiders. But they cannot offer professional leadership to staff or understand the dirty end of the service they run.

When ministers, senior civil servants and charity leaders all come from the same social, educational and employment silo, it is time to be concerned. Too much talent is being excluded.

The disdain some national charities show towards their donors is matched by the disdain they have for local communities. Researchers have described them as predatory, showing little understanding of the communities they serve, grabbing short-term government funding with no exit strategy when the money runs out, creating anger and distrust locally. Predictably, spokespersons for chief executives pour scorn on the big society which would empower local groups.

Like bankers, with no clear values to guide them, when one exploits a loophole, others follow for fear of being left behind in the rat-race.

The background of some charity leaders helps to explain the extraordinary energy they devote to pressurising the government to relax regulations on lobbying. This is the territory many of them know best. Government ministers tell them to stick to their knitting but some have never learned to knit. The status and glamour of lobbying is a great lure to leaders with no background in service provision.

The law of supply and demand is remorseless. As trustees search for chief executives with experience of working with national politicians, the pool of acceptable candidates narrows and salaries rocket; other chief executives on modest incomes, unfairly, receive collateral damage from public criticism.

The meteoric rise and fall of Kids Company demonstrates the possibilities and perils of cosying-up to government. The biggest tragedy about its collapse is that it will reinforce the view of some trustees that the skill they most need in a chief executive is an ability to woo civil servants and government ministers.

The concept of charity is being tarnished. From Shawcross’s perspective this must seem like watching a train crash which the commission is powerless to prevent. Now this really is a crisis.

Wally Harbert is a retired charity chief executive

  • Stephen Moreton

    This blog is loaded with fascinating hypotheses…

    Here’s 22 of them:

    1. There is something seriously wrong with charities, of crisis proportions
    2. Charity leaders are increasingly career administrators
    3. Charity leaders have no relevant qualifications or experience
    4. Most excesses by charities causing public concern are perpetrated by large, national organisations that often rely heavily on government funding
    5. Trustees of large, national charities (that often rely heavily on government funding) seek chief executives who are Whitehall insiders.
    6. It is not possible to provide effective leadership of staff if you don’t understand theservices delivered by the organisation
    7. Ministers, senior civil servants and charity leaders all come from the same social, educational and employment silo.
    8. Charity leaders of some national charities show disdain for their donors and for local communities in equal measure.
    9. Charity leaders of some national charities are predatory and create anger and distrust locally.
    10. These charity leaders that act in this way are career administrators.
    11. These charity leaders have no clear values to guide them
    12. Other charity leaders follow suit, when another charity leader exploits a loophole.
    13. Spokespersons for chief executives seek to disempower local groups.
    14. The status and glamour of lobbying attracts charity leaders with no background in service provision.
    15. Trustees are searching for chief executives with experience of working with national politicians.
    16. The employment market is tight for candidates with this experience.
    17. This situation is the cause of the increase in the salaries of charity trustees for large national charities.
    18. Chief executives on modest incomes are vulnerable to public criticism.
    19. KidsCompany cosied up to government.
    20. The Kids Company situation will reinforce the view of some trustees chief executive need to woo civil servants and government ministers.
    21. The concept of charity is being tarnished.
    22. The Chair of the Charities Commission has now powers to influence whether the concept of charity is being tarnished.

    The evidence provided to support these hypotheses is a little scant however, specifically:
    – The findings of the Etherington review of fundraising
    – William Shawcross (speaking at a conference organised by the investment firm Rathbones)
    – An examination of biographies of charity leaders (NB no indication of how many biographies of the 165,000 charity leaders in the UK were examined)
    – Un-named ‘Researchers’

    However, this is a blog, not a research paper. It is supposed to “generally represent the personality of the author…sometimes include brief philosophical musings, commentary on social issues, and links to other sites the author favours, especially those that support a point being made on a post. (http://searchwindevelopment.techtarget.com/definition/blog).

    This blog does that…good blog!

    • Wally Harbert

      We get the leaders we deserve. In a week such as this we should be discussing how the sector can help to build cohesive communities and how it can prepare to respond to severe disruptions in public services. But what are we discussing? – someone else’s agenda.

      • Wally Harbert

        PS.
        On the two factual matters, I am abroad at the moment and do not have my records with me.
        The researchers were from Southampton University and their work has been reported in Third Sector, Information about chief executives came from a Guardian list of largest charities and slected the top ten charities providing services to the public spread between elderly, children and mental health.