Week 13: What I learned from 10 weeks working in a large disability charity head office #LDWeek15 #107days

This post offers personal reflections about an experience just over two years ago. It is my (George Julian’s) opinion, reflections and memory. I offer it as food for thought for #LDWeek15 as JusticeforLB Week 13 continues to explore whether charities are part of the problem.

This post is not an attack on all (or any) charities for an attack’s sake; it is not fiction or exaggerated; it does not question the intention of the many, many excellent people who choose to work for a charity, although it does question the blanket assumption that all who do are quasi saints! I’ll come to that point.

My experience

After eight years working in a (very) small national organisation, trying to make a difference to people’s lives within many constraints, not least working underneath the umbrella of a very confused, multi-purpose charity, it was with joy in my heart and a spring in my step that I pitched up for the first day of a maternity cover post in the (self-named) leading learning disability charity in the UK. I was due to hold the position of Head of Research and Impact, a perfect match for my skillset and professional expertise and qualifications. Having completed a PhD looking at the education of profoundly disabled children over a decade previously, I was delighted to return to the learning disability arena and confident with a focus on research and impact had a contribution to make.

My experience was short lived however and I left after 10 weeks. There were many reasons for this, including large scale restructuring within the organisation and my complete disillusion with what I found, compared to what I’d expected!! The thoughts that follow have percolated over the last two years and I offer them now for debate and discussion.

I have written a series of general statements that emerged from my experience, I’d welcome your contributions and comments and would love to receive examples of where my generalisations are misguided, I genuinely hope a lot of them are.

1) It is incredibly difficult to critique a charity I’m not sure whether this is a uniquely British stiff upper lip, terribly polite, hold our resolve thang, but it seems to be incredibly difficult to in any way to critique the work of a charity. Invariably it is met with at least some suggestion or kick back that you’re somehow a) being unfair b) denigrating the brilliant people who choose to work for charities c) are unaware of their exceptional work and so on, and so on.

2) It is also difficult to be a dissenting voice within a charity I suspect for some similar cultural reasons as are at play in the first point, together with an unhealthy dose of confirmation bias, it is hard to truly challenge within the hallowed walls of head office. A relatively new CEO and a senior management team looking to assert themselves all too readily overlook those within their teams, rushing to squash autonomy in favour of compliant flag wavers for their latest strategic plan.

3) Not everyone who works in a charity does so because they believe in the charitable cause, nor are they necessarily exceptional at their job Pretty much like any organisation, there are good and bad within charities. A quick glance at charity accounts will show that this doesn’t always come without a cost, seemingly huge amounts of charitable funds are spent on redundancy or termination payments.

4) Not everyone in a charity is poorly paid I’m not for a minute suggesting that they should be either, however, if your CEO is taking home over £100k I’d sort of expect them to be bloody good at their jobs, and at the very least for the charity to be effective and innovative.

To give you some perspective on this, I had a quick look at Mencap’s 2014 Annual Accounts and can share that their senior management team salaries minus pension contributions (I assume it is them given they’re all on £60k plus) are as follows:

£60–70k: 8 staff members

£70-80k: 6 staff members

£80-90k: 2 staff members

£90-100k: 3 staff members

£100-110k: 1 staff member

and presumably the CEO, one staff member, takes home £130-140k.

These are not insignificant figures, and this total spend on large salaries, sits alongside 7 staff members who took home over £60k when including their termination payments (1x 60-70k, 3x 70-80k, 2x 90-100k and 1x 110-120k).

5) Excessive staff turnover or excessive staff retention – pick your poison The uninitiated may look at the salaries and termination payments above and consider 2014 an unusual year, a new CEO obviously changed the strategy at Mencap.

However a tiny dig beneath the accounts surface reveals that in addition to the 7 staff members taking home over £60k including payments when their contracts were terminated in 2014, there were 5 in 2013, 13 in 2012 and 11 in 2011.

If we assume a mid range payment in the bands offered that’s £595,000 in 2014, £615,000 in 2013, £960,000 in 2012 and £975,000 in 2011.

How can any organisation defend such waste?

6) Large, national, leading charities are no more organised, slick/devoted/competent than many smaller charities or organisations with tiny staff teams Perhaps the biggest shock for me on arrival in head office was how inefficient, uncoordinated and generally uninspiring life was. I’d fantasised about a large charity being a slick operating unit, about IT services being efficient, strategies and action plans being in place, coherent strategy and measurement processes. Who knows, maybe it is unrecognisable in its progress over the last two years, but my experience was of a chaotic and confused organisation that struggled to understand what its priorities were, never mind any of the rest.

7) Business and turnover are key In one way you could argue this is par for the course, a sign of our times, inevitable – that business should dominate charitable activity. Indeed, given the salaries paid for the management team, you’d almost welcome efficient and competent business drivers underpinning all activity, that could then ultimately improve the lives of the people it is meant to support. The reality in my experience was that money talked, anything could be written into a funding bid to secure funds, that was more important than due diligence of the activity that followed. I suspect my experience was in no way unique but it appeared that on too many levels the money tail was wagging the dog; projects and bids were devised to meet funding calls, strategic plans (where they existed) were adapted and tweaked to meet a newly funded ‘need’.

I’m no business expert, it’s not for me to say whether this is an appropriate course of action or not, I’ll leave you to make your own mind up. That said, if you have no vision, or if your vision is embedded wherever the latest pot of money is, rather than where your end beneficiaries are, you probably shouldn’t call yourself a charity!

8) You can hide anything you like with ‘good’ reporting and messaging Call me naïve but I desperately wanted to believe that the focus would be on the charitable aims I’d researched before deciding whether to take the post; campaigning, improving people’s lives, supporting learning disabled people – what’s not to like?

What I observed was that reputation was key; managing the message was as important (if not more important) then delivering on quality or improvements for learning disabled people.

If any charity believe in what they stand for, then just get on and do what you’re aiming for. For example, if your focus is on supporting learning disabled people to get work, employ them. Not one or two tokenistic people who can be sat on the reception desk and brought out for public events, I mean really employ them. If you can’t manage to walk the walk within your own organisation how the hell do you expect the rest of society to? Which leads me to my penultimate observation…

9) Beware of values that are for wallpaper not for living by! Everywhere I looked during those ten weeks I’d see value statements, they were stuck on the walls, in the lift, on the screensaver that flickered across your laptop; bold, ambitious, optimistic values, but to be honest that’s where they mostly stayed. If you have to plaster your values everywhere then they clearly aren’t embedded within your organisation.

My experience, and I’d go as far as to say those of many other colleagues there at that time, did not reflect the values being espoused. If you can’t treat your staff well, if you can’t treat the beneficiaries of your charity well, if you can’t actually make progress to what you’ve been talking about for years, maybe it’s time to shut up shop, redistribute the wealth and let some others have a go.

10) Stop speaking for – give up the power I’m not sure how anyone can be the ‘voice of’ or how it helps. Maybe it’s time to stop speaking for and just give over the power.


12 thoughts on “Week 13: What I learned from 10 weeks working in a large disability charity head office #LDWeek15 #107days

  1. Sadly, after working for a number of charities over the last quarter century, I have to come to the conclusion that most (if perhaps not all) do seem to have something intrinsically wrong with them, they seem to attract very narcissistic people who are more interested in what they can do about X rather than the human beings on the receiving end of that and have a cesspool like quality where the largest stool time and time again bubble to the top.

    The last one I worked for was a conservation charity where there had been no progression for anyone in nearly 30 years, when it expanded in the 80s the then project staff went into managements and then stayed there as they were apparently unemployable anywhere else. Same place had frequent witch hunts and my card was marked for having the audacity to suggest that an unpopular staff member who was in the process of being constructively dismissed should have the same employment rights as the rest of us.

    Other ‘highlights’ included a now defunct youthwork charity where the whole time resigned en masse on a yearly basis, a volunteer co-ordinator who submitted fraudulent grant claims over a period of years without being able to see anything wrong with that, and a household name charity where they had drug dealing going on involving one of their managers, which senior management turned a blind eye to.

    A lot of this I suspect comes down to people who think that ‘caring’ or ‘having beliefs’ automatically confers competence in what they are trying to do, also the perception that it’s ok to break the rules for a ‘good cause’. The end result is a clusterf__k every time.

  2. This is provocative stuff. Especially your call for charities (big and small) to “walk the walk” and give up the power. I couldn’t agree more.

  3. I work for a national charity and have worked in one way or another with most of the national disability charities. George’s experience is familiar to me. So many of the overpaid charity workers have no real understanding of equality and social justice. Many of them are working to maintain jobs and services that do not shift power to disabled people and their families – and just as bad is that they maintain this powerlessness with their silence and ineffectiveness whilst scooping up huge donations, grant funding and holding big reserves that could be used to make a real difference.
    Some charities are service providers that focus on getting business and use their campaigning arms
    and political connections to build business. I once saw an email from a big charity political liaison person that was gloating about promoting their services to the minister during a meeting that was supposed to be about a serious national issue for people with learning disabilities. Sure enough, that minister did go on to openly promote their services. Another low point was a conversation I had with a charity CEO who moaned about disabled people “always making demands” It is murky out there.

  4. Over the past couple of years there have been a number of questions and challenges posed to a some of our major charities, they include their ‘fessing’ up to their being snail slow to visibly and audibly own criticism of terrible abuse scandals.

    To offer tangible evidence of their not exploiting and broadcasting/marketing charitable Brand aim’s and values, principally to develop a more lucrative place in the service delivery marketplace – with one eye firmly fixed on not upsetting Public customers or rocking Political boats ?

  5. Something I’ve noticed increasingly in recent years in charities and in the public sector is the number of people who seem to think their role is about *their job* not about the people they are supposed to be there for.

  6. Sadly what one suspects that not all but any like this are not Ok. As is pointed out where is the accountability to the mission of the charity – and how does the governance test that out. I did an exercise once comparing the annual reports of 2 similar-sized national charities who basically provided support services to people with learning disabilities; one was all about increasing the bottom line (and this was the one which had all the higher salaries and many more over the £60k) whereas the other had lots of real engagement by people with learning disabilities and was clearly doing lots of other projects which had them at the centre…. My question then was how could the first be a charity – was it any different from a private provider?

    • Rosemary

      What did the local societies think about paying their enforced dues, where this and so much of their locally raised cash is, allegedly/apparently, going towards so generously oiling the National business machine?

      • Hi Molly – the ones I looked at didn’t have local societies – but obviously others do, and local groupos are often built from foundatioins of loads of voluntary effort and mission – so to find money hard-won locally being diverted with such little apparent accountability nationally would be hard. My mum used to raise loads for guide dogs until she read about the national office in prime london site with high cost work cars … she stopped raising it for them

  7. Yes, they are big businesses, and this was the intention when a certain Margaret Thatcher faced down the charitable sector and told them to stop being political – as with Oxfam, which was forced to stop its `Free Frontline Africa` campaign in the late 80s/ early 90s. Since that time, they have been more and more encouraged to become service providers, blazing a trail for the private sector – and employing a few execs whose skillset didn’t quite make the grade in big business, but could milk the public purse just fine.

    The charitable sector is proportionately much bigger in Scotland – it is, in effect, our private sector, as this is verboten in Scotland, however much it is de rigeur in England. These chaps do like to have their cake and eat it and make sure that unfunded groups such as ours are excluded from the networks that form and promote government policy – every government is in need of a `charity` to promote its latest social policy.

    I’ve just written 2 articles that you might like to have a look at, as we’re doing a similar job in Scotland to that of the LB Bill in England and we’re trying to get the current Mental Health Bill amended, as per your Clause 8 and more besides:-


  8. I can sort of understand how this happens, in that a genuine charity with important aims finds the demand for its services outstrips the ability of the original volunteers to meet them so they start employing people, to provide services or apply for grants etc, then this provides its own mementum and people get employed for thier skills whose values are not aligned with the charity, but that is seen as OK because it is making money that can be used for the charities aims………..except it doesn’t work that way because the means affect the ends and people like rosemarytrustam’s mum start to wonder why they are working unpaid to pay the salaries of people already several times wealthier than them!.
    As an autsitc adult I have been treated like a commodity by several autism “charities” .

  9. There is huge pressure to bring people from the private sector into the voluntary sector, at board level and senior management level, because they are supposed to bring dynamism and efficiency. I was on a board of a small charity who decided we needed some people from business on the board. I thought it would be one or two people with specialist skills but we suddenly had almost half the board from the private sector. I spent far too long in meetings explaining our purpose and values to them – I don’t think they really understood or cared. They were all about expansion and growth for the sake of it, never mind any conflicts of interest or the negative impact on the work we were already doing and for which we had been founded in the first place. I was glad to leave when my time was up.

  10. Pingback: The JT Show | mydaftlife

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