Being ‘Charitable’ Is A Royal Pain…

Whilst recently composing an essay for a qualification gave me the opportunity to write down some musings of myself, and others, about the constraints that we in the not-for-profit sector work under – those  expectations of the public and funders (grants funders, donors, public sector bodies) as to how charities should behave and their consequences.

Honesty and integrity are writ large across public expectations – the work being done is for the public good and in a ‘good’ way. Reputational damage can be accrued in a variety of ways. Examples of poor conduct would include; employing a firm to collect donations which takes 80% of the money collected; forming a partnership with a corporate sponsor with a dubious reputation. Caution is thereby encouraged and matters can proceed very slowly.

Another element to the charitable ethos is that charities are expected to not hold onto their money. Money is there to be spent on helping people and not to be sat upon. Grant trust funders and government grants will only allow a certain amount of ‘reserves’ – at most six months – before the not-for-profit is not eligible for funding. For many organizations the reality is that reserves are non-existent apart from those necessary to close the organization and many do not have this. This, again, can lead to organizations being very risk averse.

Given the uncertainty of funding, especially repeat funding the turnover of staff within the not-for-profit sector can be high. From the individual’s point of view the time to start looking for a new job on a three-year contract is the end of year two at the absolute latest. It can be common for the last six months of a project having staff shortages and other employees covering on top of their work. This will impact on planning time available and delivery of the project itself.

The average committee member or trustee is a volunteer. For 80% of trustees they will a performance rôle in addition to strategic management (with no paid staff to call upon). Their average age is between 55 and 64 and 60% have a professional qualification. Most are men and white. Thus there is not a great deal of diversification in the composition of a management team. Certainly they will lack the perspective of anyone, young, black or minority ethnic, female. Committee or trustee members are usually chosen by word of mouth and their experience of the rôle of strategic decision maker is limited, if at all existent. Anecdotally the author can state that despite offering training in project planning, business planning and good governance for 16 years the take up is always limited. The reasons for this can be lack of time or complacency – ‘we know what we are doing’.

To summarize; the not-for-profit sector has always been a ‘hand-to-mouth’ sector. Organizations can feel as if they are lurching from one crisis to the next. Through this is viewed as ‘unprofessional’ by some, notably the public sector and its volunteers and workers as being muddle-headed, do-gooders who need the guidance of those who know better. I would suggest from the brief discussion above that the sector is, indeed, ‘hand-to-mouth’ but that the internal and external factors that rule it will ensure that it remains so and perhaps it is a miracle that we are able to do what we do under difficult circumstances.




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