Charity bosses should not be pocketing six figure sums

They appear to have become infected with malaise that infects the City; to get bright, talented people to do important jobs they need to be paid ridiculous salaries

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The Independent Online

This morning I joined the hundreds of thousands of Britons who have contributed to the Philippines Typhoon appeal.

The appeal is now in spitting distance of £50m, which is pretty good going, particularly given that the BBC’s long running Children in Need Appeal also managed over £30m just a few days ago. 

My donation, to quote the website of the Disasters Emergency Committee, “could provide a family with food for two weeks”. 

Note the “could”. It’s clever marketing that is designed to create a warm glow in your heart, as you imagine some poor family now eating thanks to you. In fact the money goes into a big pot which the DEC members then distribute, and it may get spent on food or it may get spent on something quite different. But I know that, and I accept that. I still give because it is the right thing to do. 

However, given the principle has been established, how about we extend it a bit. 

A while back William Shawcross, the chairman of the Charity Commission said this: “In these difficult times, when many charities are experiencing shortfalls, trustees should consider whether very high salaries are really appropriate, and fair to both the donors and the taxpayers who fund charities.”

It came in the wake of a report in the Daily Telegraph reporting a significant rise in the number of charity bosses pocketing six figure sums. This was followed by a report on Justin Forsyth, the chief executive of Save the Children, who received a chunky bonus that in 2012 topped his pay up to just over £162,000. 

Now charities are big organisations handling large sums. They need bright people to run them and those people need to be paid. I’m not even going to argue here that they shouldn’t be paid well. But £162,000? 

To me, being boss of the Save the Children has to be one of the best jobs in the world. Imagine a gathering of people. You’ve got, say, a banker, a politician, and, yes, a journalist, plus the boss of Save the Children. Whose hand are you going to go up and shake? 

Mr Forsyth gets to go home every night and sleep soundly because he’s doing good in the world. 

But you know what? So is the teacher of my son, who works astonishing hours during term time and during her holidays as well. She doesn’t get paid a six figure salary for doing it. But she is bright, talented, university educated and has done a quite incredible job with the children in her charge, including mine.

So does my sister, who is a doctor and shipped over to South Africa to use her skills to help treat gun victims in an A&E for free. So does that Oxford University ethics prof who pledged to donate half of his salary to charity for the rest of his life. This should raise close to £1 million over the course of his career (were Mr Forsyth to follow his lead, he’d get there is just over a decade, and still be paid a multiple of what the professor makes).

So do millions of other people in Britain, people who don’t chase money but instead chase something else, who display a quality that seems to have vanished from the top of our society: Altruism. 

Without it this country would simply collapse. But its big charities would probably survive. 

They appear to have become infected with malaise that infects the City; and with the idea that to get bright, talented people to do important jobs they need to be paid outsized, and sometimes frankly ridiculous, salaries. Even though the fact of this country’s continued survival, and indeed its relative success, suggest otherwise.

I think Save the Children could actually find people out there to do the job for significantly less were it minded to do so. Why not? It’s an awesome job. 

Let’s for argument’s sake pick a number. Say £99,999 because the tax rate does some perverse things at just above the 100k level leaving with allowances disappearing and the like. 

That’s £62,000 saved. You know what that does? It buys 1,240 families in the Philipines food for two weeks using the DEC’s figures and methodology (Save the Children is a member). Or water purification tablets for 24,800 families for a month. Or emergency bedding and shelter for 620 families. And Mr Fosyth still gets just shy of a hundred grand! 

This isn’t a specious argument. The DEC has established the principle. I’m just extending it to its logical conclusion. 

Mr Forsyth’s pay is not an excuse not to give. If you can, please do so. It’s a very worthy appeal. Just reading the reports in this newspaper will tell you that. 

But I beg to differ with him when he piously says this: “We are not ashamed of doing what it takes to get the best people to help our cause.” 

If doing what it takes costs that much, I think he should be. His trustees could get good people for less.