Friday, 19 December 2008

Going Corporate

According to the annual report of WWF, in 2006 and again in 2007 the organisation spent £7.5 million on raising £12.3 million of unrestricted donations from individuals. Put another way, that for every £10 donated to WWF they will have spent £6.00 on raising that money. Of course not all the ratios are so bad. Overall they only (yes only) spent £11.5 million to raise £41 million, of which over £11 million came as legacies, and nearly £5 million as government grants, which only cost £0.75million to raise. The average salary paid was £34,800 p.a. and three members of staff earned between £80,000 and £120,000 a year in 2006. The figures for 2007 are much the same. And of course there are any number of interpretations that can be made of such figures.

I mention these figures, not to criticise WWF -- my readers can look at the Annual Reports of any NGO and draw their own conclusions -- positive or negative. I mention them to illustrate a more important point. That is that Conservationists and charities are often told to look to business for guidance, and to model their modus operandi on business models. I think that in general, this is bad advice. And business is a bad model for a conservation charity to copy. And I think WWF follows it too closely. And the danger here is that the public become distrustful of charities that spend a huge percentage of their income on raising those funds.

Having worked in and around both the charity sector and the business (publishing) sector for around 40 years, I feel confident in asserting that business has more to learn from the Charity sector than the other way round. At the WLT we take a 15% overhead, to cover non-project related management and fund-raising costs. Put it another way, we are making a 85% 'profit' to spend on our objectives. Not many businesses can claim that level of efficiency. Salaries in the charity sector (despite the above quoted figures) are generally significantly lower than business --but, research has shown, the employees are generally much happier, more loyal, have less time off for sickness etc etc etc. But realistically it is just as daft to say business should learn from charities as the other way round.

Both sectors should be using the models and methods that work best for achieving their objectives. Some charities (such as the Royal Opera House**) have used the business model, and pay huge salaries to senior staff, claiming they need to do this to attract the right people. I disagree. The right people will not be motivated by huge salaries, they will be motivated by a belief in the work of the charity. Even in the business world not everyone is obsessed by money. This is not to say that any staff should be underpaid, but once the salary becomes the main reason a person takes a job, it is increasingly difficult to assess their real worth. I am a critic of conservation bodies that become too 'corporate'. Large reception areas, all chrome and glass. It may be how big business operates, but it should not be how a conservation charity operates. Charities rely on voluntary donations, and donors do not like to think their well intentioned gifts are being spent on maintaining flashy offices, or funding an extravagant lifestyle for the staff.

** Much as I like opera, I cannot really see the justification for it being considered a charity.

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