I don’t volunteer. Maybe it’s because I’m lazy or not very charitable. Or it could be that my past volunteer work was illuminating for all the wrong reasons. I’m not alone in having been thus illuminated, Philip Greenspun sums it up well in his blog:
Non-profit organizations exist to provide their staff with great jobs and the fun of making decisions and spending money. The folks who work at a non-profit organisation are very interested in drawing a salary higher than their skills and working hours would command at a for-profit enterprise subject to competition. They are not especially interested in efficiency or accomplishment. If you’ve come from the commercial world, in which McDonald’s must be ruthlessly efficient for fear of being destroyed by Burger King, working with or in the typical non-profit organisation will likely drive you to insanity.
There, that’s the gist of it. If you’re pressed for time, please feel free to read no further.
Early volunteering career
I haven’t always been a misanthrope. As a student I worked pro bono for sever causes I held dear. It was alright. Student volunteers – bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, eager to please – are treated well everywhere. Because: people diskile being personally responsible for sowing cynicism in young hearts.
Then I got a real job, there was a greasy pole to climb, my passion for bettering the world was put on hold.
In 2012 the Olympics came to London. After taking two weeks off work to lend a hand I was so pleased with myself, I wanted to continue. Which I did as a trustee of The Charity: small but old, helmed by a few volunteer members of the local gentry and some professional charity employees.
A one-charity trustee vs a multi-charity trustee
There’s an important difference. The former are folks who serve on the board of only one charity or non-profit. They are or have been employed full time in private or public sector, they often have a personal connection with their charity’s line of work, and they are not in any way remunerated by any charitable organisation.
Multi-charity trustees are a different breed of cat. These are professional charity workers, interlinked with other such persons via a network of paid full-time or part-time roles, ad hoc culsultantships and volunteer directorships and trusteeships. It’s a sort of a demented SPECTRE, if Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s chief aim were to keep his buddies on some charity’s payroll doing fuck all.
Professional charity workers are better
All who work in the City eventually learn to handle certain remarks from outsiders – sometimes subtle, often tactless – without a blink. My favourite response to “What do you do with all that money” is “I preserve: banknotes with plums and crab apples. I’ll email you the recipe”. The truth is, very few in the City earn the proper big bucks. Most of us don’t. We don’t do our jobs because we love them, money isn’t how we keep the score – it’s how we pay the mortgage.
In my experience, as far as charitable sector folk are concerned, working in financial services makes one a millionaire with no morals. Volunteering at a non-profit while working in financial services makes one a millionaire wtih no morals in search of redemption. At first I thought the misconception silly. Later it began to chafe.
I expected the trustee board, and governance in general, at a smallish charity to be something of a shambles, though not anything quite so unholy as what I found.
Board meetings in the City are held mainly to endow what has already been decided. Where a new initiative requires board approval, first the executive directors informally “socialise” the proposal with non-execs. If non-execs are broadly in favour, it is put on the agenda to be discussed at the meeting. If non-execs are unconvinced, they ask for further information, evidence, input from various business functions. Once/if they’re satisfied, the proposal is put forward. Ambushing your non-executive directors with unexpected motions at the board table is a career-limiting move. Also, making requests where there’s a chance of outright refusal is embarrassing.
Surprising trustees with new proposals not much progressed from a
brain fart new idea stage was modus operandi of The Charity’s management. The mode in which the proposals were put forward made it clear that the director was merely seeking a rubber stamp. Queries were treated as a nuisance, especially finance-related queries: a charity’s purpose is to Do Good, you understand, it is Not A Business and hence we shouldn’t Focus On Money. Such cavalier attitude can be frustrating if your role on the board is Hon. Treasurer, which kinda makes you responsible for ensuring the outfit remains solvent.
Givashit is a depletable resource
I volunteered at The Charity out of a genuine, albeit misguided, belief that my contribution would help make a difference. There was no other reason. It’s not and never has been on my CV. I had to tell the HR and Compliance at work to get a conflicts of interest waiver as per terms of my employment contract, but I never told anyone in my team, nor my boss. Some friends found out about my extracurricular activities towards the end – we were moaning about work, someone wished for more meaningful employment, e.g. at a non-profit, I failed to suppress a rant – and some didn’t.
For The Charity’s employees who ran the place day to day it was a job. A cushy job with flexible hours, above-average skill-adjusted salaries and no management by objectives. There were limited opportunities for advancement internally, but only the director was ambitious. His ambition was, from what I could tell, in the political line and he devoted a lot of his time to
networking seeking collaboration opportunities with other non-profits and local politicos, and CV-building by attempting to represent the charitable sector at whatever latest social manifesto initiative the Labour party would trot out.
My first year at The Charity was the best, for there was hope that I wasn’t wasting my time enabling a hot air filled non-entity not bright enough for the private sector climb his retarded version on the greasy pole. As this hope diminished and then dissipated, so did my givashit.
Should you volunteer on a charity board?
If you’re retired and are being gnawed by an urge to make this world a better place, what the hell, give it a shot. After all, what do you have to lose? If you’re old enough to be retired and not yet cynical as fuck (which you can’t be, given the aforementioned urge), then you’re probably resilient enough to work for any sort of charity and come out of the experience unscathed.
But don’t do it if you’re still employed and depend on your income. It takes time to do it well, and trustees are ultimately responsible for everything a charity does. They can be legally accountable for decisions made. Trustee indemnity insurance protects you financially but can’t protect your reputation. And if, as part of your job, you’re subject to the PRA’s SMR regime, signing up for the board of a loosely governed non-profit is madness. If you’re itching to do something, then write the charity a cheque. Not only is it tax deductible, it’s also quicker, easier and more enjoyable than having debates about what constitutes effective and financially sound management.
- The clergy should be excluded from this group, even though some are involved with multiple charities. It could be argued that for them it comes with the territory.
- For fairness’ sake I should note that this was pre-Kids Company. Maybe that episode, which ended with the charity’s directors banned from running companies for up to six years, has knocked some complacency out of the charitable sector. At least I hope it has.