From charity scandals to university strikes - what does it take to be a good organisation?

The cultures of markets, missionaries and Millbank-era spin are tainting previously trusted organisations. But there are alternatives.

Gerry Hassan
5 March 2018

Image: Edinburgh University, Flickr/StephenGG, Creative Commons license.

The last few weeks have seen huge controversies surround the charity organisations Oxfam and Save the Children. In both, senior men have been accused of acting inappropriately; in the case of Oxfam, involving the grotesque spectacle of Haitian disaster survivors being sexually exploited.

Whilst the right-wingers predictably tried to capitalise on the controversy to undermine the aid budget, the response from the aid sector (particularly Oxfam) has been slow, bewildered, and insufficiently contrite. The issue has highlighted how aid agencies have become mini empires, sometimes shaped by paternalism and the idea that they know best. These modern day missionary attitudes have been exacerbated by the cult of leadership and managerialism in many big charities, and by the adoption of modern business practice.

At Save the Children, both former CEO Justin Forsyth and his former number two Brendan Cox (husband of the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox) were products of the New Labour era of spin doctors and advisers. This was an age of arrogant, abrasive men in “The Thick of It” style operations, who had (in the culture of New Labour) few limits on their behaviour. This was a culture after all which produced Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride.

The skills gained in the black arts of New Labour seemed transferrable. People have been parachuted into senior positions running complex national and international organisations, bringing with them an apparent sense of entitlement and limitless possibilities.

An even bigger conundrum raised by these controversies is – what exactly constitutes a good organisation in the modern age?

Once upon a time many of us were sure we know the answer to this. Good organisations included most public services - from the council to education, health, law and order and the BBC. Now we aren’t so sure even of the public sector, although the NHS still has - in Scotland at least - high records of trust and satisfaction.

Big voluntary organisations have become in many cases extensions of the state and reliant on competing for government contracts, but still command confidence: a recent Scottish survey gave them 73% trust rating, down from 83% the previous year. But trust in business has seen a far steeper decline, following the banking crash and the insensitivity and self-interest of too many of those at the top of business. The huge salaries – such as the £3.48 million earned by its Chief Executive Ross McEwan, sit ill alongside the past errors and deceptions, which he’s been slow to apologise for.  

This sort of thinking has poisoned large numbers of public institutions that the public used to respect, too. One example much in the headlines has been that of universities and the pay of Vice-Chancellors. The new Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh University, Peter Mathieson, identified as the most highly paid in Scotland, in his first year pockets an impressive £342,000 plus £42,000 in pension contributions and £26,000 in relocation costs. Previously that honour was held by Jim McDonald, Vice-Chancellor of Strathclyde who earned £360,000, alongside such goodies as the use of a £1.18 million townhouse with a £300,000 refurbishment.

Even this only touches the surface of what is going wrong. Glasgow Caledonian University for example have spent £11.5 million of public monies on their white elephant New York operation which has taken years to get US certification and has only a handful of students. Typical of the age we live in is the attitude of that once respected and loved organisation, the Open University, with its head, Peter Horrocks, suggesting that he deserved his £360,000 salary because he had to sack so many colleagues. Such is the context of the current dispute between universities and their lecturers over savage cuts to pension rights. Analysis by the Labour Party has shown that while Vice-Chancellor remuneration packages have increased since 2010 by 227%, university basic salaries have risen by 19%.

Such insensitive attitudes raise public ire. The backlash means it cannot go on indefinitely, partly because in the cases of university heads their salaries are taxpayer funded. But even in the case of private enterprise such as banking (leaving aside RBS being part state owned), these organisations are ultimately accountable to us, and if they lose respect, people will eventually take their custom elsewhere.

What exactly are the characteristics which make a good organisation in this present climate? I think we know such bodies when we come across them, and they are often grassroots initiatives with a strong sense of place and locale, and of mission and founding leadership. Examples that spring to mind include the inspirational Galgael in Govan, Glasgow, aiding long-term unemployed to learn craft, carpentry and ancient shipbuilding skills; and Govanhill Baths on the city’s southside, who took back the building from the council and have turned it into a thriving, vibrant community centre.

There is the example of the Sistema project with the Big Noise Orchestra who began in the Raploch estate, Stirling, and now work in Govanhill, Glasgow, Torry, Aberdeen and Douglas, Dundee. And there is the much-lauded work of the Violence Reduction Unit, beginning in Glasgow, but now national, tackling first gang and knife crime, and then spreading out to mentoring and support.

What unites these examples (and there are many more) is how human, adaptable and difficult to pigeonhole each are. Each began as a reactive response to a set of local circumstances, and emerged because there was a problem, a need, or a vacuum. The leadership that emerged in each wasn’t traditional, nor was it shaped by the cultures that have taken over too many charities and voluntary organisations. It was less status driven and formal, but instead mobilising and often with a charismatic and ad hoc element. Maybe in several of the above, they will morph into something different as they grow older and more established.

The rolling out of business-speak and practice across organisations – from the ubiquitous MBAs, to the discombobulated language and the arms race of salaries and perks at the top, hasn’t enhanced the performance of customer facing side of such bodies, whether private, public or voluntary. While this can all be seen as manifestations of the economic spirit of zombie capitalism there is also the problem of how to challenge, speak out and break the silence, particularly when the organisations are seen to represent a greater good.

Both Oxfam and Save the Children attempted to keep these controversies out of the public eye, to defend their reputation and good work. This comes close to believing in your own virtue and the dangerous quicksand of moral bargaining. And it shows that being an organisation doing good is never on its own enough, and that the notion of good has to be lived, stated and restated every day, holding your actions up to accountability and public scrutiny. It was ever thus, but such basics seem to be increasingly beyond people at the top of too many of our biggest organisations.

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