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Chief executive pay: What do charity communicators really think?

14 May 2014

Despite a third of the public having a more positive opinion of charities than they did three years ago, many are uneasy about the way money is spent and in particular levels of executive pay – according to a recent report by New Philanthropy Capital (NPC).

We’ve been asking charity communicators whether they’re worried about senior salaries and the way money is spent in their organisation. From our conversations it seems many are. How can those striving to influence external opinion, gain support and demonstrate impact, do their jobs if they share the concerns of the wider public?

Possibly this reflects poor internal communication of spending rationale. Perhaps comms people are feeling undervalued and under-budgeted. Conceivably, what is sought is in fact better leadership.

Maybe it’s personal

Interestingly while many express concerns about spending, the majority of those we spoke to say the charity they work for hasn’t in fact been affected by critical media coverage around issues such as CEO salaries.

So perhaps the worry isn’t about the impact on organisations and doesn’t indicate a specific reputational crisis or risk that needs to be addressed; but rather a rolling, ongoing frustration about operational and financial management. A rift between charity management and charity comms functions.

Thinking back to a report we produced some three years ago, almost 40% of the 106 charity comms people surveyed said communications was not valued in their organisation.  Maybe this problem persists.

Future challenges

There’s clearly no quick-fix solution.  But it seems inevitable that senior managers and communications teams are going to have to get their heads together on spending and openness.

An NCVO inquiry into charity senior executive pay recommended full transparency to ensure public trust.  Organisations are being asked to publish ‘exact salaries of named senior staff members in an accessible place on their websites’.

Internally, this means open conversations between comms teams and charity leaders.  And it should lead to all staff having a clear understanding of the rationale behind salary levels.

Externally the knock-on effect of this information being easily available is unknown.  Martyn Lewis, who chaired the inquiry, said: “Doing this will make it clear that we believe in being open and honest with donors… I hope charities will consider this an extra opportunity to explain their work and the difference they make.”

Making the difference

Linking spending to impact is vital.  Budget planning should begin with an assessment of impact.  And – assuming sensible decisions have been made – external communication of impact should implicitly demonstrate value and ‘social return’. 

Talking about impact comes naturally to comms teams.  And although the NPC report suggests the general public still has little understanding of the voluntary sector and the difference charities make, the comms people we’ve been speaking to have overwhelmingly told us they feel confident their charity is having a positive impact.

It seems despite any unease about internal decision making and expenditure, people working in charity comms roles remain upbeat, pragmatic and steadfast.  They are still motivated by a passion for the cause, an utter commitment to those benefiting from the charity’s work, and recognition of the vital difference the sector continues to make.

See the results of our conversations with charity comms people.

Louise Morriss

director, Amazon PR

Louise Morriss runs Amazon, an agency specialising in PR, communications and engagement in the voluntary sector. Louise leads an award-winning team that creates and delivers campaigns for charities of all shapes and sizes. Join in the discussion on