Gingko House’s Love Project Rice Box team in Yau Ma Tei on August 1. Photo: Jonathan Wong
Shalini Mahtani and Jo Hayes
Shalini Mahtani and Jo Hayes

More than love: charities need professional staff, funding to succeed

  • There is a strongly held belief among some donors that charity workers should be volunteers who work for love and fresh air
  • Charity workers still have bills to pay, though, and the sector needs skilled, competent professionals who love their job and are paid fairly

When we think of people who work in charities, adjectives such as kind, passionate and resilient come to mind. As women who run charities, we want to change that narrative. We want more people to think of charity workers as skilled, competent and professional. And like any professional, charity workers deserve to be paid fairly.

A charity might start with one founder with a big vision. In time, it will almost certainly morph into an organisation with more than just the founder if it is successful. The charity – whether it is a food bank, a shelter home for women or a youth empowerment organisation – will need staff who do the field work and those who run the back office.
Field workers might include social workers, counsellors, psychologists and project staff. These professionals have skills and qualifications that are always and increasingly in demand. These experts will run suicide helplines, operate support groups for victims of domestic violence, do home visits to ensure children are fed and more.

They create social capital so we can live in harmonious communities and our economies can function well. Through their work, they help keep society peaceful and crime rates down.

As with any business, charities need a back office. They need finance professionals to ensure donations and expenses are properly managed. They need operations and HR professionals to manage staff and run offices. They need fundraising professionals to identify donors and write complex grant proposals to fund projects. They need senior executives who report to an independent board of directors to ensure governance, policies and standards are upheld. All these professionals need to be paid, and charities compete with the private sector for this talent.


Hong Kong yacht club and charity team up to help special needs teens learn dragon boating

Hong Kong yacht club and charity team up to help special needs teens learn dragon boating
Like many other sectors, we are experiencing a significant shortage of talent, and we have an extra hurdle to clear. While many donors understand the need for professional paid staff, there are still far too many who don’t. There is a strongly held belief that charity workers should be volunteers who work for love and fresh air.

We do love our work, but we still need to live. We need to pay rent, bills, school fees, buy food and clothes like anyone else. As much as many charities love working with skills-based volunteers, asking them to work long, stressful hours with measurable deliverables and tight deadlines is not a sustainable way to run an organisation.

It would be unthinkable to ask a bank worker, accountant or sales person to do their job for free, so why would you expect a charity worker to work for free? We need professionals in the charity sector who love their job and are paid fairly.

We often hear the term “administration costs” in the non-profit sector. This is code for salaries, rent and other overhead costs that are imperative. We often hear donors agreeing to fund a project but then pushing back on these essential costs.

What are Hong Kong’s charities, businesses doing to help the needy?

Have you ever considered donating to a charity? Have you ever considered how they pay the rent, their staff, the electricity bills, the transport or any other programme-related cost? Who designs the programme, and who monitors it? Who is doing the accounting to ensure your funds are going to the people you want to help? If a community programme delivers hot food to children living below the poverty line, we need money to pay someone to prepare the food, the electricity to cook the food and someone to distribute it. If we engage volunteers, we still need someone to coordinate the volunteers.

Donors have worked hard for their money, and like their charitable partners they want to maximise the impact of every dollar spent. If you want the maximum return from your social investments, work with and support skilled, competent professionals – the people who know the sector best – and pay them fairly. It’s that simple.

On this International Day of Charity, on September 5, we celebrate all the professionals caring for the Hong Kong community and hope we have inspired a conversation about the value of staff in the charity sector.

Shalini Mahtani is CEO and founder at The Zubin Foundation and a member of Voice for Social Good

Jo Hayes is the CEO of Habitat for Humanity Hong Kong and a volunteer for Voice for Social Good