Charities must address criticisms following salary revelations

(Originally published on the Huffington Post)

How charitable is the charity sector? It depends who you ask. If you are the executive of one of Britain's leading foreign aid charities you are likely to give a positive answer, but then you would be a beneficiary of this generosity of spirit. If, however, you are one of thousands of unpaid interns currently working for free for charities across the UK, you might be inclined to disagree.

A report found graduates are being exploited by the charity sector
Earlier this week the Telegraph reported that the number of executives paid more than £100,000 has risen from 19 to 30 at Britain's 14 leading foreign aid charities, over the past three years. The research also revealed the number of workers earning more than £60,000 increased by 16% between 2010 and 2012. The indignation expressed by some charity bosses in response to criticism at the revelations was telling.

"Charities shouldn't be ashamed of paying people what they are worth," fumed Sir Stephen Bubb, Chief Executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo), "It's essential that the sector attracts skilled and experienced professionals, not keen amateurs."

Sir Bubb's point was reiterated by several prominent figures, and it might have some merit were in not for the blatant hypocrisy involved when one considers the sector's flagrant and widespread exploitation of young talent.

The news about executive pay follows a report on unpaid internships in the third sector, published by the campaign group Intern Aware and Unite the Union in May. The report revealed the disturbing prevalence of unpaid internships within charities, which are often advertised as 'volunteer opportunities' to evade paying the national minimum wage.

Calling for an end to unpaid internships, the report claims that over a third of the top 50 charity employers in England and Wales don't pay their interns. Its findings were corroborated in a government review by the former head of the NSPCC, Dame Mary Marsh, who also criticised the prevalence of charity internships and recommended they be replaced by a new recruitment strategy, similar to Teach First - the Government's strategy to widen participation in teaching.

In light of these circumstances the six figure salaries earned by some charity bosses appear particularly obscene, as do any attempts to justify them on the grounds that they are necessary in order to attract the best talent. For this argument to have any credibility it would need to be applied across the board - not only to those at the top but also to those starting out on their career path.

Yet the reports on unpaid internships were also met by indignation from some sections of the charity sector. In a blog on the website entitled 'Are unpaid interns really a problem?' former senior charity worker Wally Harbert issued an impassioned argument in favour of the current recruitment model. "...should people be stigmatised for wanting to volunteer?" he asked, adding that "today's gross inequalities will not be undone by tampering with the system of interns, which will lead the wealthy to obtain privileges in other ways."

Of course nobody is suggesting that getting rid of unpaid internships is the answer to all of society's woes - though it might be a start - still less that volunteers should be stigmatised. But while the legal lines between legitimate voluntary roles and unpaid internships may be blurred, many charity interns are clearly victims of exploitation. Often they are given high levels of responsibility, conduct tasks which the organisation relies upon and work on a full time basis. All the while they are told the organisation cannot afford to pay them a wage, an excuse some graduates may now be less willing to accept.

Rather than continue to dismiss legitimate criticisms aimed at their sector, charity leaders must act in collaboration with the Charity Commission - The regulator for charities in England and Wales - to ensure they are appropriately addressed. This would involve implementing some of the recommendations proposed by Dame Marsh in her review, as well as heeding the advice of William Shawcross, the head of the Commission who warned that "disproportionate salaries risk bringing organisations and the wider charitable world into disrepute."

Failing to act could have grave consequences for a sector whose virtues are in danger of being severely undermined by the elitist structures of some of its largest organisations.