Do charity CEOs deserve big salaries?

Lucy Masterson of Charities Institute Ireland wants to talk about social impact rather than overheads...

Do charity CEOs deserve big salaries?

Picture by Anthony Devlin PA Archive/PA Images

The CEO of Charities Institute Ireland has strongly defended the high earners at the top of many Irish charities and called for an end to their demonisation.

Lucy Masterson told Newstalk Breakfast that they are "trained, skilled professionals" who are completely committed to their cause, but "still have mortgages and grocery bills to pay like the rest of us".

Initially saying that she "couldn't understand" the public outrage surrounding some inflated charity pay packets, Masterson went on to venture that it comes from how "traditionally the history of giving and the history of charity in Ireland is so strong and so rich".

Whereas once services were provided unpaid – "largely by religious orders and people who were able to volunteer" – Masterson said that "we're living in a new reality now".

"The charity sector in Ireland [fills] a huge gap in society and it's often not spoken about," she argued.

"And that's fine, because we don't want to be celebrated as 'look at us, aren't we fantastic?' But actually, when we look at the gap that the Irish charities fill...

"There's over 132,000 people directly employed in this sector and that is not to mention those working indirectly. There is over half a million people who turn up in an unpaid capacity every week."

Masterson pointed out how, "far from being a taker", the sector contributes €5.5bn per annum to Ireland's GDP.

"But apart from that... there is a valuable and vital role that Irish charities play right across towns and counties across our country. Without these people turning up to work every single day to provide these essential services, these services simply wouldn't be provided."

Irish Cancer Society CEO John McCormack has an annual salary of €135,000. Picture by Julien Behal PA Archive/PA Images

Charities Institute Ireland was one body formed following the various scandals in recent years involving funding models, most recently with news that Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay and some senior management received salaries in excess of health sector pay rates. 

Masterson said that the chief concern was that charities be upfront about how money is spent:

"The charity sector needs to have clearer and better information to help people judge how the money is being spent. That's what we do at Charities Institute Ireland.

"We formed, by the way, at the request of the charity sector in Ireland to... continuously upskill and professionalise how they do their work."

"It's not 'how much money am I spending?' and 'what am I paying my CEO?', it's actually 'what impact is this having?'. 

"Because, quite frankly, I would pay any amount to a CEO or somebody working in a charity, who is actually making real inroads to end homelessness, or to tackle cancer, or to make sure no child is afloat in a dinghy in the Mediterranean.

"That's the conversation that we need to be having: not the overheads, it's actually the impact."