NGO top salaries: mountains, molehills and interns

In response to the story in The Telegraph highlighting six-figure salaries for (a very small number of) charity bosses in the UK, I was asked to write something for The Guardian. In this piece, I was (and remain) rather unconcerned about the news that Major Organisations with budgets of over £100million and hundreds of staff pay their CEOs large salaries. There is a debate to be had about salary levels, but one that should be based on whether it is fair to have the profoundly unequal wage differentials we have in this country overall, not about the charity sector alone.

But what is clear is that a number of misapprehensions (wilful perhaps?) have been propagated by the initial newspaper reports and subsequent reactions. The fact that some (actually only two from the rather small selection investigated by The Telegraph) earn more than the Prime Minister has been held up as somehow shocking. Why? These are not public bodies (where such comparisons may have more weight). They may be non-profit organisations, but they are also private – a fact that somehow seems to escape the attention of the critics.

Another criticism is that, as organisations in receipt of public funds, NGOs have a moral obligation to rein back pay. Certainly, as organisations mostly critical of the marginalising effect of gross inequality, as organisations working with some of the world’s poorest, as well as being organisations spending public funds, there is a responsibility not to waste money. But we (or rather The Telegraph and other critics of NGO salaries) seem not to be overly concerned with salaries of chief executives of private for-profit organisations who also receive huge amounts of public funds for their work (PriceWaterhouseCooper, for-profits working in the health sector, G4S and its publicly funded (in)security work). To be fair, the salaries of top banking executives, especially bonuses despite continued poor performance, has been a target for hefty criticism. But, large though the amounts of public funding to NGOs is, it pales in comparison to funds to prop up failing banks. And there are no NGO CEOs receiving multi million pound bonuses as far as I am aware.

As I wrote in the article, should we really be judging the work of these organisations (and more specifically that of their CEOs) on the level of income they have raised? Surely we do not see the hallmark of success of Oxfam, Save the Children, Christian Aid, and the others as income? And those that do are surely missing the point. There may be reasons why some CEOs should not be seeing their incomes rising, but not on the basis of a simply profit / loss analysis.

Interestingly, the targets of the attacks on ‘charity boss excess’ are all development and humanitarian organisations, working predominantly overseas. Cancer Research UK, for example, pays two of its staff more than £200,000, and in total 35 receive more than £100,000. To be fair, last month The Telegraph did report that the RSPCA pays three senior execs more than £120,000. I don’t want to see conspiracy against charities working with poverty overseas, but the debate over the past couple of days has been rather one dimensional in terms of its targets.

But if the issue of top NGO salaries is perhaps of less significance (and something of a distraction) than the most vociferous of critics would have us believe, there is nonetheless something of an irony that many of these organisations are happy to defend senior executive pay whilst continuing to recruit unpaid volunteer interns, promising the dubious benefit of gaining valuable experience (that will hopefully one day lead to paid work). I know there’s no direct link between senior pay and internships. But can organisations who campaign against low wages, against inequality, against the exclusion of the poor from opportunities to gain experience and training, really defend internships?

If you’re looking, the Red Cross (CEO salary, £184,000) is advertising for a Health and Social Care Projects intern:

This is a very high profile project working in partnership with other voluntary organisations to create a more integrated pathway of care for our beneficiaries. There would also be opportunities to develop experience in overall project management, a scoping study and needs assessment, as well as, monitoring outcomes and impact and mapping and research of local communities.

One to two days a week for 8-12 weeks, reasonable travel and lunch expenses (well, reasonable as long as they are under £5 per day). Or how about an internship supporting the humanitarian and finance grants team at Save the Children (Chief Operating Officer salary, £168,653): again, reasonable expenses, but very definitely a voluntary position.

Anyone working in a development studies department will know of countless numbers of students who feel required to undertake unpaid internships in order to gain work experience. With so many people clamouring to work in the sector, NGOs and other development organisations can be picky, and hold all the power when it comes to maintaining the internship system.

So, perhaps we should resist the temptation to create a mountain out of the very-much-molehill that is a tiny number of people from a very selective pick of organisations earning vast sums of money. But NGOs should also think a little bit more about the message that is being sent when they defend (fairly) those salaries whilst maintaining an unequal, unfair system that does little to advance the values they seek to propagate globally.

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About Mike Jennings

I am a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. My work is on the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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