Conservative MP Rory Stewart suggested this week that the professionalisation of charities was responsible for alienating volunteers and contributing to a growing disconnection between charities and the public.
Really? There is an important challenge here to the sector about how it engages with the public, whether volunteers or supporters in general. But the issue isn’t about charities “loving to be called professional because they think volunteers are amateur”. There’s a place for both professionalism and volunteers, obviously, and charities do well on both fronts. Charities are professional, but are on the horns of two competing pressures when it comes to perceptions and audiences. On the one horn, the sector’s growing involvement (and dependency on) service delivery grants means they have to tell a story about quality, cost-effectiveness and efficiency, to win competitive tenders for contracts. On the other horn, is a common public assumption that charity should be voluntary, and that any expenditure on salaries, fundraising or admin constitutes waste; and often a private sector view that charities are amateurs that need their professional help. Throw in regulator and watchdog initiatives on measuring impact and fundraising ratios, and no surprise you have charities telling a story about professionalism, about how good they are, about themselves.
Where large charities have got it wrong as they have grown into multi-million pound organisations is to be seduced by their size, expertise and professionalism, so that the story they tell to donors is one of “help us to help others”, rather than “let us help you help others”. Donors are not seen as central stakeholders to the organisation, but there to feed the beast and let the beast get on with the work. That’s where disengagement comes from, being kept at arms’ length.
People give time and money to the causes they care about, not to organisations. Supporters have to be central to the story. It’s not about you.
Matthew is one of our beloved leaders. He has more than 20 years of experience working in the charity sector so he knows his stuff.