It FEELS wrong to even mention Christmas in August, but this week I was reminded of Save the Children’s Christmas campaign.
It was sandwiched between adverts for turkeys and toys and it opened with a shot of a sleeping child in a comfortable bed. But then the bed became a floor and the floor turned into a litter-strewn pavement.
It ended with the stark message: “Tomorrow, millions of children will wake up to a world of poverty, hunger and disease. Until this stops, we won’t rest.”
The misery unfolded against a faltering, stripped-back version of Tomorrow, from the musical Annie. I was so struck by it, I wrote about it in this column. I said that yes, it was grim, that yes, it was probably too much, but argued that it was exactly the kind of shocking, powerful campaign big charities had to run to raise awareness and money – particularly at a time when incomes were being relentlessly squeezed.
It jarred with me then and it still does now, only for quite different reasons. Not because the advert was so obviously expensive and slick – that is a given – but because we now know that a sizeable portion of the cash it pricked us into handing over went straight into the pockets of the people who run Save the Children.
Earlier this week, we learned that Justin Forsyth, the chief executive of the charity, earned £163,000 last year. Not only is it a good deal more than many of us had thought, it is more than most of us are comfortable with the head of a charitable organisation taking home.
But it doesn’t stop there. Other members of staff also earned six-figure salaries, including the charity’s chief operating officer who was paid £168, 653.
Meanwhile, the chief executive of the British Red Cross earned even more, taking home £184,000. The list goes on: the chief executives of Comic Relief, Christian Aid, Oxfam and Care International all earned between £130,000 and £110,000. In all, 30 staff at 14 leading UK foreign aid charities were paid £100,000 or more. To make matters worse, many of them received inflation-busting increases.
Consequently, the Charity Commission has warned that such large salaries could “bring the charitable world into disrepute”.
Chairman William Shawcross said organisations had to ask themselves if pay levels were “really appropriate”; if they “were fair to both the donors and the taxpayers who fund charities.”
And while Mr Shawcross chooses to overlook his own pay – he earns £50,000 a year for working just two days a week – he clearly thinks charities are out of step with the public mood.
But if they have been criticised, charities have been quick to retaliate. They claim they’ve never tried to hide these figures. And it’s difficult not to have some sympathy with their argument that running a big charity is a demanding job and that organisations need to attract the best people. But where the head of the charity leaders’ organisation Acevo got it wrong this week, was by rigidly sticking to the idea that six-figure salaries in the charity sector are “entirely justified”. They’re not.
Yet, criticising charities goes against the grain. We need to remember the enormous good they do and the tens of millions of pounds they raise every year. But we are right to ask questions about pay and whether they provide value for money.
This is more than mere financial titillation, or a storm in a media tea-cup. It’s our money, after all. But the one thing that we shouldn’t be is surprised. In the end, running a charity is like running any business and these are complex organisations operating in a profit-driven world.
Over the years, I’ve been to dinners and balls where money is raised for good causes. Between courses you can’t help but wonder how much of it will end up where you want it to go. But that’s how it works. It’s a trade-off; an emotional transaction. And although it would be naïve of us to expect charities to function like charities, there is a need for greater transparency.
Charities need to make it absolutely clear to donors how much of their contribution will go towards the six-figure salaries they feel they can justify paying senior staff. It’s certainly something to think about this Christmas.