Posted by: Jess McCabe10/02/2012
There is a saying about volunteering that goes, ‘You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.’
There’s another perspective, however: what gets paid, gets valued.
This conflict is perhaps at the heart of the debate that housing associations - along with other types of non-profit and charity - are engaged in when they consider if board members should be recompensed for their time, energy and expertise.
Steve Gough, a lecturer on housing, and also a board member himself, put the case very strongly this week in our discussion on boardroom pay, in support of the ethos of volunteerism and even the Big Society.
As the issue has been at the top of our minds this week here at Inside Housing, when I’ve been out and about meeting people I’ve been asking the awkward question, ‘do you think you should be paid?’
I haven’t met any board members strongly in favour of being paid. One older gent told me he is a member of several boards - for some, he is paid, for some, he is not. It doesn’t affect the amount of time and energy he puts into the post, he told me. But it does reflect the level of responsibility he’s taking on.
Another reason for paying, of course, might be board diversity: whether you want to attract members with specific skills in finance, or parents with young children.
Interestingly, some of the board members I met this week were very strongly against being remunerated. Clearly they do view the time spent in board meetings as making a statement about the kind of community they want to live in. One person wondered if the housing associations couldn’t find a better use for a few thousand quid.
Obviously we are having this debate as the issue of pay is in the headlines. Bank bonuses have prompted another re-evaluation of what it is that determines how well someone gets paid. Commenter Gavin Rider put in:
“There are plenty of examples of very highly paid executives who have overseen disastrous performance. Like you, I don’t see the automatic link between pay and performance.”
And it made me think of a study from a few years back by the new economics foundation about the relation between pay and value to society. Leading City bankers for example, take home between £500,000 and £10 million a year (or did in 2009). For this, NEF says they destroy £7 in ‘social value’ for every pound they are paid.
Hospital cleaners, meanwhile, generate £10 in social value for each pound they take home, and society benefits to the tune of £12 for every £1 that workers in recycling plants get paid. The study, unfortunately, was silent on the worth of housing association board members. Or, thank goodness, journalists!
It’s a topsy turvy world, as the NEF shows - many people’s salaries have no real relation to the benefit to society of the work they’re doing. But this is the flipside of the coin - volunteering is great, but pay does matter. It’s not just about attracting the best people, or those whose caring responsibilities mean they otherwise just can’t afford to be at the table. Volunteering is about values, but pay sends a message about value too.
Or, as Philippa Jones put it:
“It is for each organisation to reach its own view on whether to pay their board members. No one approach is right for all. At Bromford our board took the view that payment reinforces the serious nature of the non executive director responsibility & helps us set out clearly our expectations of the role. The payments are far lower than for commercial boards but the principle is rightly the same.”
But, as the discussion progressed in the comments, Steve remarked: “I’m still looking for evidence of the strange alchemy that changes someone from being an uninvolved board member to a keen one for £x000/year.”
Next week’s Focus is on Building Stronger Communities. Visit the Focus page from Monday for details.