How to talk about paying staff in charities

Today’s Times (below) leads on a detailed, well-researched story on senior salaries in charities. While hardly a new issue – see also my picture below from 1995 – it nevertheless asks legitimate questions of our sector that we need to be able to answer truthfully and authentically.

Today’s Times front page on charity salaries… and detailed analysis inside
And this one from 1995...
And this one from 1995…

Searching questions about six-figure charities are largely an issue for Britain’s largest charities (though not exclusively, as today’s article covers some medium-sized charities paying substantial salaries).

Nevertheless, everyone in the sector needs to be prepared to take part in a conversation about senior pay in charities, so here’s a few points you might want to cover.



1. The best people make the biggest difference.

Charities exist to make a difference to the causes you believe in, so it makes no sense to serve those most in need with those least able to help them. Pay is one of a number of factors that help to attract the best people and, given the large and complex operations some charities are running, it makes sense for them to pay to get highly skilled, experienced people to run them. That’s not to say smaller charities paying less don’t attract the best people. Nevertheless, I for one would happily contribute to a seven-figure salary for the CEO who leads the charity whose work finds a cure for a major illness.

2. Senior staff in charities are paid less than their equivalents in the private sector.

Charities, and the people who work for them, operate for the public benefit. There’s very clear evidence that senior staff in charities are paid less than their equivalents in the private sector – look at the table below from the most recent annual survey from pay specialists Croner Reward: CEO pay is at 25% below the commercial sector. Surveys consistently show what Americans sometimes call the ‘do-good discount’, some as much as 45%. When it comes to the public sector, senior staff are probably paid on a par with their equivalents. In other words, staff are motivated by wanting to make a difference, and they take this into account when taking jobs in charities.

File 17-12-2015, 13 30 38

3. Very few people earn the salaries quoted in the newspapers.

When you read about six-figure salaries and charities, you might imagine that such salaries are paid widely. They are not. NCVO estimates that there almost 800,000 paid staff working for charities: our evidence further suggests that 1,081 people are paid more than £100,000 a year. (This excludes charities such as private schools – include these and the figure is higher) Fewer than 1% of UK registered charities employ a member of staff earning £60,000 or more. Employing staff on the sums seen in the newspapers is a minority sport.

4. People get paid to work for charities. And no, they aren’t an overhead cost.

The country would fall apart if the 12.5 million people who volunteer each month suddenly decided to down tools. Many charities would also fall apart. But working alongside those volunteers, charities need to pay staff to do all manner of things, whether providing IT services or someone on reception. It’s worth pointing out that over half of the paid voluntary sector workforce are in adult social care, caring for people in residential settings, delivering the core charitable work of that organisation. They’re not an overhead. Simon Scriver is very much worth reading here.

5. Charities should be transparent and accountable about pay.

No excuses. Some of the debate around stories such as today includes complaints that charities aren’t transparent or accountable on issues such as pay. If they aren’t, I think we should be clear that that’s wrong. If we truly are organisations that make a difference, that benefit the public, then transparency is part of the deal. So, you can see what I earn here, and I hope your organisation will do something similar if you don’t already.

ncvo pay

Finally, and perhaps more practically:

  • If you haven’t already, look at the guidance NCVO issued after this last came up in the press and implement as much of it as you can.
  • Most importantly, put a statement on your website (here is NCVO’s) explaining to donors how your charity sets pay along the lines above.
  • Get your trustees – who are almost certainly volunteers – to do the explaining, as they have no vested interest.


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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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