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Why is charity viewed as the private and public sectors’ poor relation?

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

The Covid-19 pandemic helped to spell out the true value of charities. Now it's time to push for greater recognition and improved perception says Dowshan Humzah

What do people think when someone says that they work for a charity? They work for free. They have a good heart. They could not get a proper job.

It is rare to hear people – even careers advisors – champion the charity sector as a place to build careers when young people are progressing from education into work.

There is plenty of talk about other professions, trades and entrepreneurship. I believe that ‘reality TV star’ also ranks highly as a career choice among young people now.

But despite the clear fact that the charity sector has much to offer in terms of the drivers of a decent job – career progression, challenge and ultimately (what many may feel they could have done more of) serving and supporting others – it is often overlooked.

To illustrate the challenges and rewards of the charity sector, I call upon the insights of a couple of friends who are CEOs respectively of a very large charity and small charity.

Michelle Mitchell Chief Executive at Cancer Research UK says: “Working for charities gives you the opportunity to make a huge difference and tackle some of the thorniest challenges and greatest opportunities of our time. Working with like-minded people who care about the why and not just the what is stimulating and requires the very highest standards of leadership, people engagement and complex stakeholder management. The fulfilment of doing a good job well for a charity is immense. You can change charities for the better and they will change you for the better.”

Katharine Sacks-Jones, Chief Executive, Become, says: "When I tell people I work for a charity, the response is often "oh that must be so rewarding" and of course it is. But it is also as challenging as any other sector. I think people underestimate the professionalism, drive and capability of people in the third sector. It's not a career choice young people are even told about, and most people don’t really understand the sector but getting to do something about which you're passionate, which stretches you and makes a difference is a huge privilege."

Why is it not a more popular option? Perception, pay and prestige may have much to do with it. After all, we live in a culture where metrics define most things. Pay has become a measure of success and perception: in some eyes, the more you earn the more you’re valued.

But not everything that matters can be measured – and not everything that we can measure matters.

In the third year of a global pandemic that shows few signs of abating, we continue to be ruled by volatility, uncertainty and complexity. Disruption is the new normal.

This environment has created greater polarisation and widening inequalities that particularly affect the most underestimated, underrepresented and underserved groups in our society.

But the pandemic may have helped us define who are the real ‘masters of the universe’. They are not the self-proclaimed high-earning bankers, who (let us not forget) required government bailouts when the going got a bit tough during the financial crisis of 2008.

The true key workers – healthcare professionals, retailers, environmental workers, carers and the army of charity workers – are the ones who kept our nation going and supported the many millions of vulnerable and underestimated folk.

When private and public sector provision fails to keep pace with demand, those who work in civil society, particularly charities, do what they always do: step up and step in to carry out vital work, often without recognition.

So, while the media and our rather privileged gatekeepers have much to shoulder for the perception of the charity sector, we must also look at what charities themselves can control.

This includes strong governance and supporting the wellbeing and professional development of charity employees and volunteers.

The sector could also provide a greater focus on the value of the services it delivers, and the hope and optimism offered to those who are vulnerable and underestimated.

There have been some spectacular failings in governance of some of our most trusted and best loved of charities; however, we have seen the same and, to be fair, more in the private sector and public institutions. Of course, the charity sector with its ‘service’ and ‘generous’ culture is likely to be held to higher standards.

Serving others should not be seen as a sacrifice for having to accept low pay or no pay. The operating model for many charities may be broken – donations, funds, services need to allow for personnel to be challenged, adequately rewarded, developed, retained and championed as great talent. This is both at an executive level where the volunteer model, though key to have can sometimes be abused when full-time paid staff are required; and also, at a non-executive level where directors, i.e., trustees, who carry a significant risk for the organisation, are volunteers and unremunerated.

Rather than being perceived as a home for those who wish to volunteer or ‘may not have been good enough for other sectors’, the charity sector needs to improve its narrative, highlight its impact and champion and reward its people.

This isn’t a question of big private and public organisations compared to large charities, or the millions of small private-sector limited companies vs hundreds of thousands of small charities – it is a sector-wide issue.

Skills are transferable, and we often talk about folk from private or public sectors who choose to go into the charity sector.

But it is a two-way street, and there is so much these sectors can learn from those in the charity world.

It should not be seen as a stepping stone – which, in my experience of non-executive roles, it is sometimes positioned as. How wrong this view is, given the needs, challenges and risks in a society where we need the best talent to solve the most pressing problems.

I have heard it said that if Lehman Brothers was Lehman Sisters, it might not have collapsed.

I often think that if banks and professional service firms were run by those from the charity sector, with their end-user focus, service and their values record, then we may not have had the financial crisis of 2008.

Dowshan Humzah is an independent board director and strategic adviser, and chair of Overcoming MS. A shorter version of this article originally appeared in Third Sector Magazine.

Join us at the Getting on Board Festival of Trusteeship 2022 for more opinion, advice, learnings and views from experts in the field of trustee diversity and excellence.

Photo by Julia M Cameron at Pexels



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