Help for not for profit and charity trustees

Are charity people too nice?

are people who work or volunteer for charities and not for profits too nice?

A surprising question perhaps, even slightly insulting – what’s wrong with being nice anyway, better to be thought that than the obvious alternative. So what does it mean or imply?

Firstly, nearly all those who work in the not-for-profit world do it because they believe in the cause combined with a desire to help others or the environment or sometimes animals. Their motivations are not money nor usually, personal advancement. They do not profit – in monetary terms that is – from the work they do. Relative to other similar jobs they are likely to be less well paid. They do not receive bonuses or share options. They may well do over their contracted hours and I know of many trustees who do not claim expenses for travel.

I suggest this creates a mindset which finds it hard to accept that not everyone thinks and believes this way. There are many people who do work for money and reward, they do seek personal advancement and it these factors which motivate them. In the commercial world, your salary level and where you are in the organisation’s hierarchy is the measure of who you are. Being selfless and adopting high moral positions may even be a problem where promoting the firm and its profits is the be all and end all of a day’s work.

Then there are politicians. They are nearly all characterised as uncaring or actually venal which in my view is unfair. Almost all the MPs I have met have sought election because, in their own way, they want to better the lot of their fellow man (or woman). Many find the practice of politics to be quite distasteful and are uncomfortable at being whipped through the lobby to vote for something they are uncomfortable with. Nevertheless, they are politicians.

What happens when our nice charity people come into contact with people of the other tribes? Sometimes, they find it hard to understand that they (politicians for example) do not relate to the problem which the charity finds so important. There is a kind of gulf of understanding. They think that dealing with rough sleepers – to take an example – is an important and serious issue. They find the cases they deal with to be distressing and sometimes upsetting. To then be in contact with someone who does not think this way can be troubling or even perplexing. Surely anyone can grasp the importance of this issue and it only takes a modicum of imagination to put yourself in the shoes of someone spending the night huddled in a doorway with only a sleeping bag for comfort. Some people come away from such a meeting with an MP or a minister, baffled or bemused and frequently disappointed. Where did we go wrong they ask? What more could we have said? Could we have put our points across more cleverly? The answer is probably ‘no’ to each question.

The fundamental reason in my view is a difference in perspective and culture. For the ‘nice’ people who work in a charity or not-for-profit, grasping that others do not have the same beliefs can be quite hard, indeed almost impossible. They want, and often need, others to be as caring as they are. To put themselves into the shoes of someone who believes (to use my rough sleeper example) that they do so out of choice, or because they are feckless and habitual druggies who are beyond help, in other words, it’s their fault they are slouched in a doorway with nothing but a mongrel for a companion can be a tough call. Not that you would necessarily get these opinions openly expressed.

My message therefore is for people who work in a charity to be a little more realistic and hard-headed in their dealings with politicians in particular. To be wary of being patronised by politicians only too happy to come along and cut a ribbon or offer brief support in a photo call for the local paper but then do precisely nothing for the cause or the charity. Has anyone in fact looked at ‘They Work for You‘ the website which sets out how your local MP votes on a variety of issues? This often comes as a surprise to many when they find that the MP has voted on several occasions to make their cause worse by voting against legislation which would have helped or voted for cuts which has made matters more difficult (or both). Or to find the honeyed words at local meetings are at direct variance to speeches and their voting record in parliament. Of course, you cannot storm into the MP’s surgery and hammer the desk waving the results of his or her They Work for You record. Well you can but it isn’t likely to get you far: there are proprieties. Letting them know you know can be useful on the other hand.

Nice people may therefore need to be a little ‘un-nice’ sometimes!

Peter Curbishley

Author of ‘How to be a Successful Trustee‘ ISBN 978-1-913012-61-8

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