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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.

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Eddie S talk patch

Week 13: Does awareness raising go far enough? #LDWeek15 #107days

Today we find ourselves in the middle of Learning Disability Week 2015 #LDWeek15. We thought we’d use Week 13 to ask a question which many seem very uncomfortable with, are charities part of the problem? We’re starting off with questioning awareness raising.

So, what is Learning Disability Week I hear you ask?
It’s an awareness week run by Mencap, who simultaneously advertise themselves as ‘the UK’s leading learning disability charity’ and ‘the voice of learning disability’. Quite some accolade to give yourself, and quite a claim to live up to.

Each year for Learning Disability Week Mencap pick a theme for the week and seek to ‘raise awareness’ of the issue in hand. The week has traditionally been in June, although there was a slight detour into August in 2013, but business as usual returned in 2014.

What does LD Week focus on?
Each of the issues that feature in LDWeek are an existing Mencap campaign or priority, so if you were to take a cynical view one perspective could be that they are using a national awareness raising week to raise the profile of their organisation and do work they’re committed to doing anyway. Regardless of that, let’s take a look at the focus for the last few years:

2009 saw a focus on accessible toilets and Changing Places

2010 was equal healthcare and ‘Getting it right’

2011 turned the spotlight on Disability Hate Crime

2012 stuck with Hate Crime; perhaps there was a delay in planning, or no other issues that needed attention given toilets and healthcare were ‘done’.

The CEO at the time stated: “The reason we went back to the issue this year, is because we’re making good progress,” he explained. “We’re making great progress on working with the police in a way that will lead to a steady reduction of hate crime and a tackling of the perpetrators. There’s much more to do, though”.

2013 took a slightly surreal turn about, where presumably having sorted hate crime, healthcare and toilets it was time to celebrate. The August week focused on, wait for it, superheroes!

Who is your superhero? Celebrating families ‘amazing, brave and selfless people’. Which is an interesting way to frame learning disabled people and their family members! We’ll come back to that later.

2014 stuck with a theme of celebration, after all there were obviously no burning issues that needed raising awareness of in these two years.

The billing for the week asked: Do you remember your first? We asked you to celebrate people overcoming adversity, and people’s prejudice and ignorance to experience their incredible firsts.

2015 Bringing us up to date, this year the tone is less party and more traditional with a focus on Hear My Voice and listening:

We’re reaching out to the newly-elected politicians and people in a powerful position to tackle the myths and misconceptions about learning disability that fuel prejudice and inequality.

What format do these awareness raising weeks take?
A quick search on the internet will provide you with a range of approaches to raising awareness during LDWeek, with some grassroots activity across the UK.

That said there is also a bit of a format at play, whereby every year Mencap Head Office beam with pride as they celebrate the success of learning disability week (usually by the Friday on their website or early the next calendar week) that involves:

a) a London launch event or soiree at Westminster
b) a few mentions in the media
c) a new film or media soundbyte to use
d) some airy celebrity promises of support
e) a Charter or commitment for people to sign up to.

Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of measuring impact would be able to see that these blogs ‘celebrating success’ are focused purely on activity and not on impact or outcomes.

The other consideration is positioning; what message is being shared about learning disabled people and their lives? Are we celebrating them as superheroes? Really? I’ve yet to meet a superhero, learning disabled or otherwise. Are learning disabled people and their families brave, overcoming adversity, pioneering?

Or are they just like you and I. Human beings, wanting human rights. No more, no less.

A question of impact
So all of this activity leads to what exactly? It’s not for us to offer an answer, we’re simply asking the question, but we would like to hear about the impact of such a large amount of focus.

While it is no doubt reassuring to the senior management team to tick a box on the annual strategic plan, and external profile raising never goes a miss, one can’t help but wonder whether all this talk and awareness raising leads to very little change.

Eddie S talk patch

Later this week we’ll take a look at charity accounts and some of the positioning of charitable activity. All thoughts and contributions very welcome as ever, drop us an email if you’d like to blog on this.