Think carefully before jumping on the 'fat cat' charity boss bandwagon

The bandwagon about the salaries of senior staff in charities rolls on. This is part of a wider debate about competence, probity and efficiency, stoked by people who, one suspects, have a tenuous relationship with evidence and a penchant for selecting anecdotes that buttress their case. The report earlier this summer in the Sun which expressed surprise that the Alzheimer’s Society wasn’t run entirely by volunteers is an example.

In the Third Sector Research Centre we have done the most extensive piece of work on this, so we field journalistic enquiries about the subject from time to time. One journalist stated that there were wide variations in the amounts that some charities pay their chief executives and senior management, with some heads of ‘relatively small organisations paid far more than one might expect’. The other was interested in organisations that might be spending a ‘large proportion of income on senior staff costs’.

The answers to these queries depend on what you mean by a small or large charity, and what you mean by ‘high’ salaries. Camila Batmanghelidjh of the charity Kids’ Company, which closed recently, argued that they were a ‘small’ charity. That might be true relative to the big medical research and international development charities, but with an annual income that had exceeded £20 million in some years of their operation, that would put them comfortably in the top half per cent of English and Welsh charities. The typical charity is much smaller – the median income is around £13,000 and only 5% or so have incomes greater than £750,000. Only around 3% of charities below that level pay anyone £60,000 or more (charities must disclose numbers of staff paid at this level or above).

Discussion of the salaries paid by charities to senior staff must bear all this in mind. Firstly, it may not be sensible to pose the question purely in terms of the proportion of income paid to senior staff. If you pay someone even the average salary – around £26,000 a year – that’s going to account for 5% of the budget of a charity with a turnover of half a million pounds. That might sound like a very large figure, but if you pay average salaries you might not be able to attract the talent that is needed. Paying more than that – say a full-time salary in the range of £30-40,000 – would account for 6 to 8% of income; a sum which might outrage the public if posed so baldly and simplistically. But remember that such a chief executive could be managing buildings and assets, employees, and large numbers of volunteers, not to mention having to spend a substantial amount of time fundraising. When you think of the content of the job, these figures begin to make more sense.

It is also helpful to consider some specific types of charity. Hospices are a good illustration – some of the smaller ones spend under £2 million a year but may well employ specialist medical staff. Of course they will have to pay the going rate for those staff – unless you want to return to the pre-NHS era in which individual consultants gave free care to the poor, cross-subsidised by their income from private patients. It wouldn’t be a surprise in those circumstances to see that the salary of the highest paid staff member accounted for 2% or more of the charity’s income. And many other charities with relatively small budgets have to employ people capable of operating at a high level, given the nature of what they do.

So the debate needs to get a sense of proportion. Most charities are not large in financial terms, but many do employ highly qualified professional staff so that they can deliver specialised services to a high standard. The population of charities is large – 160,000 or so in England and Wales - and it’s always possible to find anecdotes that prove your case. But most charities, most of the time, keep a very close eye on remuneration, which is why the proportion of staff in the sector receiving salaries of £60,000 or more is considerably lower than the private or public sectors.

Professor John Mohan, Director of the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham