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Are the volunteers getting their claws into charity fat cats?

The Belfast Telegraph's exclusive about the six-figure salaries paid to some charity CEOs in Northern Ireland sparked controversy. But that was nothing compared to the outrage Una Brankin discovered in the shops.

It's a rainy afternoon in Portadown and there are none of the usual well-meaning tin-rattlers on the sodden streets. Inside the charity shops, however, business has been steady from opening time, when the morning sunshine brought out the regulars and other passers-by.

The same cannot be said for the large Menary's store on Market Street, which is closing down after limping along for the past few years. Why buy a blouse in there for £40 when you can get one – never worn – for £4 in the British Heart Foundation across the road?

When you're buying in Menary's, you're helping to pay the staff's wages and the store's rates, as well as filling the coffers of the corporation.

When you're getting your bargain in Oxfam on High Street, or Barnardo's on Thomas Street, the voluntary assistant gets zero, as does the local council – charity shops don't have to pay rates. Some of your money will go to the charities' welfare projects, some to the shop managers and the rest to the directors of the organisations.

The latter percentage, according to the Belfast Telegraph survey published this week, is shockingly high in some instances, most notably in the case of the Praxis mental health charity boss, Nevin Ringland (left), who earns £142,000 a year – almost as much as Prime Minister David Cameron.

"It's terrible," says Tandragee grandmother Margaret Lappin (64), who volunteers a few hours a week for the British Heart Foundation on Market Street.

"We don't even claim for parking, or travelling, although we're entitled to. It hasn't put people off coming in – they rely on what they see in the window and the contents of the shop.

"When you see a big store like Menary's closing down, you're thankful business is steady."

The British Heart Foundation wasn't included in this week's survey and Margaret is interrupted, before she can say more, by her extremely wary manager, who "isn't comfortable" commenting on revenues.

On average, charity shop managers are paid £18,000 a year. It's not enough, according to 70-year-old Cancer Research NI volunteer Irene Turkington.

"It's a disgrace what the bosses are paid – the managers deserve much more," says Irene, who's from Brownlow in Craigavon. "So much is expected of them, it's flaming ridiculous.

"We're all volunteers here and, no, we don't claim expenses. Why give your time and effort to charity if you're going to take from it?

"You'd wonder what those ones in the news do for the money. I've been working since I left school at 15 and I've been here for five years. I keep threatening to retire, but I cover for anyone who's off, or is sick."

Cancer Research NI refused to disclose to this newspaper what their London-based chief executive earns. The organisation has two branches in Portadown centre, one on High Street and one on the adjoining Market Street. Although well enough stocked, they aren't as spacious and bright as their competitors and don't make as much profit.

"We'd make £30 to £50 on a good week," says Irene. "It would be very hard to reach £100 like some of the others. Some of the donations, like from TK Maxx, or Tesco, do better than others and we've just had 200 bags left in from Slimmers World – clothes that don't fit them any more."

Any thing the charity shops don't sell is normally 'ragged' and sold by weight to recycling companies. A good seller for Oxfam on High Street is its selection of secondhand laptops, which are refurbished by an IT technician from Dublin, who gets a percentage of the sale.

Manager Agnes Quinn (57) makes the hour-long commute from her home in Downpatrick to the bright, well laid-out branch five days a week.

She has worked for Oxfam for 13 years and hasn't had a pay rise in five years, when all increments below director level were stopped. Oxfam's all-Ireland chief executive Jim Clarken, received €110,000 (almost £90,000) last year.

"It's a contentious issue here, especially with the rate of inflation at nearly 2%, but I can't say much about it in the paper," says Agnes, a smartly-dressed mother-of-two.

"Suffice to say, we've done well during the recession. We make budget every week. Walk-in donations dried up for a while, because you can't park on the street, but Marks & Spencer and C&A are good to us.

"Anything else that's handed in dirty, I'll bring it home and wash it and one of the volunteers will steam it in the back. We're kept busy, but I love it."

Shy Scottish teenager Alexandra Parker volunteers at the Drop Inn Ministries store on High Street. The first Drop Inn shop was opened in nearby Richhill by religious couple Ronnie and Caroline Dawson in 1994.

Today they have 33 branches throughout Northern Ireland, the Republic, the Isle of Man and Iowa, sending their profits directly to the head office in Richhill for distribution among their anti-poverty projects across the world.

The large High Street store specialises in good-quality secondhand suites and furniture. Alexandra isn't aware of our survey, which didn't include Drop Inn Ministries.

"Business is steady; we can take in £500 a week," estimates Alexandra (18), from Falkirk. "I'm an intern and it's voluntary. I live in Richhill now and the director looks after any expenses I have. We do make some tips, but not very much."

Cork-born Nell Wiley (71) volunteers "as and when I'm needed" at Save The Children on Edward Street, opposite the upmarket Yellow Door restaurant and deli. The long-established charity's Northern Ireland head, Fergus Cooper, earned £49,000 last year.

"I don't agree with the huge pay packets some of these people get, but Save The Children is a global organisation and they have to make big decisions when there is a huge natural disaster or whatever," says Nell, a former midwife from Richhill.

"They do work, making policy decisions and I would say they are hands-on.

"We're all volunteers here – there are no paid people. We are entitled to claim back expenses, but no one does. There are one or two shops with paid managers, but they're gradually going.

"There's one overall manager for all the eight branches locally and she does a lot of travel to and from them. After that, it's up to the volunteers to run things. We have 14 or 15 here and we could do with a lot more."

And more umbrellas in their stock, by the way. They could have made a fortune with them on Thursday, whatever the top dogs took out if it.

The top 10 UK charity shops

Within the Top 10 UK charities, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) has the highest annual income at an average of almost £151,000, according to the most recent figures from the Resource Recycling organisation.

The BHF has approximately 709 shops nationwide, each making an average weekly profit of £869.

The Salvation Army, however, has one of the lowest numbers of branches, at 135, but they take in an average of £1,729 per week – the highest of all 10 shops on the list. And sitting comfortably in the middle is Barnardo's, with approximately 487 shops making an average of £406 profit per week and an average annual income of £444,280.

1. British Heart Foundation UK: 709 shops approx. Average yearly income: £150,900. Average shop profit per week: £869

2. Oxfam: 685 shops approx. Average yearly income: £93,120. Average shop profit per week: £811

3. Cancer Research: 554 shops approx. Average yearly income £69,305. Average shop profit per week: £712

4. Age UK: 452 shops. Average yearly income: £46,000. Average shop profit per week: £374

5. Barnardos: 487 shops. Average yearly income: £44,280. Average shop profit per week: £406

6. Sue Ryder: 392 shops. Average yearly income: £36,500. Average shop profit per week: £396

7. British Red Cross: 318 shops. Average yearly income: £27,500. Average shop profit: £372

8. Scope: 327 shops. Average yearly income: £23,200. Average shop profit per week: £228

9. Salvation Army: 135 shops. Average yearly profit: £22,115. Average shop profit per week: £1,725

10. PSDA: 179 shops. Average yearly income: £20,223. Average shop profit per week: £259

The top 10 highest-paid charity chiefs

More than half of the 60 charities surveyed by the Belfast Telegraph this week admitted to paying their chief executives in excess of £50,000, with at least three earning salaries running into six figures.

Almost a quarter of the organisations approached refused to disclose figures, in spite of drawing millions of pounds each year from the hard-pressed public.

The lowest paid of those available for the survey were Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful chief executive Ian Humphreys, who earns £44,000, and Friends of the Earth NI director James Orr, who earns between £43,860-£46,660. There are 6,460 charities registered in Northern Ireland, mostly small set-ups operated by a handful of volunteers, the majority of of whom don't even claim the expenses they're entitled to.

From the figures available to us, the top earners are:

1 Praxis care mental health charity director Neville Ringland: £142,000

2 National Museums NI chief executive Tim Cooke: £105,000-£110,000

3 Unicef all-Ireland executive Peter Power: £114,000

4 St Vincent de Paul national director Kieran Murphy: £93,647-£101, 791

5 Niamh mental health charity boss Peter McBride: £90,000-£100,000

6 Oxfam chief executive Jim Clarken: £89,576

7 The Contact counselling service charity's chief executive: Fergus Cumiskey: £85,714

8 Arts Council NI chief executive: Roisin McDonough: £75,000-£80,000; also Mindwise chief executive Edward Gorringe: £70,000-£80,000

9 Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action chief executive Seamus McAleavey: £71,211

10 NSPCC NI regional head of service Neil Anderson: £60,000-£75,000

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