Terrence Higgins Trust – Saving Money at the Cost of Employees?

11 Jun

Like all charities, Terrence Higgins Trust is facing an ever changing and challenging financial and social climate.  Its response has been to adapt services and staffing to protect its beneficiaries, and controversially, to consider cutting employee benefits.  Henna Bakhshi speaks to the Chief Executive Sir Nick Partridge about the trust’s plans for the future.

Sir Nick Patridge
Photo courtesy of Terrence Higgins Trust http://www.tht.org.uk

It’s not every day you get to interview your Chief Executive and I was more anxious than I had anticipated.  On arrival, I was greeted by a warm handshake, decided the likelihood of being booted out of my job was slim and started with some background on what led Sir Nick to where he is now.

Sir Nick came to London leaving behind rural Somerset, a place he describes as beautiful but where coming out as gay was “very, very challenging and very difficult”.   He joined a fast-track management programme but after taking his then boyfriend to a work social event, he was informed that his career was being moved into the slow lane.  A wake up call he describes as brutal.  

It is clear his decision to join THT in 1985 was driven by personal experiences.  When I ask why he chose to work for THT he says simply “I had friends who were dying”. 

At that time the realisation of HIV/AIDS was just hitting the UK with a widespread fear and a great deal of ignorance around the nature of the virus.  THT was considered a radical organisation because it brought a level of visibility to HIV/AIDS and gay rights which had previously not existed. 

Sir Nick explains how calls came in from hospitals every day as people were admitted with HIV/AIDS and THT were asked to help.  At this time, AIDS was known as Gay Related Immuno Deficiency and Christian groups were saying people with AIDS should be quarantined.  It is a far cry from today’s world of civil partnerships for same sex couples and legislation to protect those with HIV/AIDS from prejudice and discrimination. 

Now in 2012, THT is facing very different challenges.  There have been three rounds of redundancies in the three years I’ve worked here and salaries have been frozen for three of the past four years.  At the same time, the needs of our beneficiaries are greater than they’ve ever been as the recession hits those already struggling to survive.

Times are tough and the charity and public sector are being hit hardest. 

THT recently re-launched the Hardship Fund in response to the recession.  The fund is designed to be an emergency measure for those in dire straits.  However, as SirNick explains, bringing the service back into THT means “we can offer it alongside our other services and that’s a sustainable solution”.

Another cost saving move being considered is cuts to employee benefits, most recently reducing maternity leave to the statutory package.  THT prides itself on encompassing and supporting people regardless of race, gender, sexuality, age or HIV status.  Does Sir Nick worry that in considering this move, THT is inadvertently discriminating against its entire female workforce?

“It’s not a move on its own, no decision has been made yet.  We want to know what the response is.”  In my team of five women, the response has been less than favourable. 

Among other cutbacks, we have already accepted salaries below the rate of inflation for the past few years because we recognise how this can protect jobs.  We are now being told that within five years, we will have no financial support beyond six weeks after giving birth. 

Sir Nick’s response shifts the focus from his employees to THT’s beneficiaries.  “We have to have a set of terms and conditions and salaries which are fair, not just between employees but also between employees and beneficiaries.” 

While Sir Nick’s passion for the work of THT and its beneficiaries is unquestionable, my more difficult questions were batted away with the ease of someone who has had extensive media training, which at times left me wondering how he really felt about the issues I’d raised. 

Employees are feeling the strain of being asked to deliver more at a time when THT can offer them less.  It is true all charities are facing cuts but in a sector where employees are driven by passion rather than money, is the risk of demotivation a price worth paying?

What is clear is that one of our greatest upcoming challenges will be to balance the needs of both beneficiaries and employees.  It is no easy task and it remains to be seen how well THT achieves this balance.

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