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Misconceptions of Professionalizing Charity

Man holding briefcase

When hearing the views of someone who has been active with over 300 charities across many decades, it behoves one to listen and learn from that wealth of experience. But it doesn’t mean one has always to agree.

At the Hinton Lecture in November 2019, Princess Anne made several important points about the state of the non-profit sector, backed by her own personal examples. She spoke of the problems that arise when organizations bid for contracts of which they have little understanding and even less experience. And she highlighted how those same charities can get maneuvered into deploying volunteers as cheap replacements for public sector workers.

She also warned against the professionalization of the sector. I was with her right up to that point.

I suspect the Princess was concerned about a wholesale shift away from volunteers and towards paid staff, a concern which I could understand, but that’s not what she said.

Language is incredibly important, and professional does not simply mean “paid”. Professional implies someone who is, according to any thesaurus: adept, accomplished, an expert or authority in their field. The antonym of professional is not volunteer, it is amateur, and this misunderstanding goes to the heart of all the earlier observations that she’d made and indeed, it goes far beyond her commentary.

It may be the public perception that charities should all be run by volunteers, that the CEOs of £100m turnover non-profits should be paid no more than £30k a year, and that any full-time staff should predominantly be well-meaning amateurs: presumably drawn from that narrow demographic of retirees, the independently wealthy and those with a particular penchant for hair shirts. That doesn’t mean the public perception is right, because it’s patently not.

Imagine if Oxfam’s response to the safeguarding scandal had been to recruit a cadre of people to design and police new global policies, and went on to explain that they would all be amateurs: they wouldn’t be paid or necessarily have the required skills or get any training, but they’d be very passionate and keen. It is these types of examples that pop those preconceptions.

Of course, we all want charities to be centered on their beneficiaries, to look after their people, to stand as exemplars for society: compassionate, caring, morally governed and ethically driven. But to achieve that, we also need them to be well-led, efficient and effective; to strive for the greatest positive impact they can have with the means at their disposal; and to have the skills and acumen to quickly spot and react to bad practice, bad commissioning and a badly drawn contract when they see one, particularly since commercially earned income makes up over 50% of all charity revenue in the UK.

It is an obviosity, therefore, that we need skilled professionals in the sector: fundraisers who are expert in ethical fundraising, accountants who are adept in charity law, leaders and middle-managers who are accomplished at getting the very best from their teams and, to the Princesses point, commercial professionals and executives who properly know what they’re doing when they’re bidding for and agreeing to contracts.

Whether they’re paid or unpaid is irrelevant, although it’s unlikely they’ll all volunteer for free.

Purpose and professionalism are no more mutually exclusive than commerciality and conscience. They are mutually supportive, as a myriad B-Corps and successful Social Enterprises can amply demonstrate. It’s a big problem that some sections of the public still don’t get this; that they believe charities are and should remain, the exclusive domain of the kind-hearted amateur. But it’s another thing entirely when people within the sector choose language that reinforces such inanity at a time when charities need professional skills more desperately than ever.