Slide 1

Michael Mainelli and Ian Harris

[A version of this article originally appeared as "Seven Paradoxes", Quality Management – Charity World (1993)]


Seven Paradoxes Of Quality Management For Charities

Benjamin Franklin, when discussing quality, once said "the best is the cheapest." [We are being paid a mere £40, so this article should be marvellous.] Franklin presumably recognised that, in the long term, higher quality results in lower costs.  Higher quality is the objective of two management theories: quality management systems and total quality management.  Quality management systems, such as ISO9000/BS5750 (which are equivalent for the purposes of this article), emphasise traditional control mechanisms (e.g.  checklists, control logs, standard forms).  Total quality management (TQM) is a philosophy where management use a set of approaches (e.g.  discussion groups, quality circles, customer involvement) to build a culture of continuous improvement.

Charities are increasingly interested in quality, for instance it was one of the most prominent issues at the last Charity Fair.  Charities are not alone; business magazines are replete with articles on quality, over 20,000 organisations have achieved ISO9000/BS5750 registration, more and more organisations have created the post of quality manager.  Quality is a subject full of apparent contradictions.  We explore seven paradoxes of quality management for charities below.

Paradox 1: Quality applies to charities like us, quality does not apply to charities like us

Several definitions of quality can be used, but they regularly embrace the following theme: quality is fulfilling customer requirements.  The argument "we are a charity, we don't really have customers, so quality doesn't apply to us" is often stated but we believe it to be weak reasoning.  Charities tend to be involved in diverse activities and the definition of "customer" for charities is complex.  A quality system will tend to be of direct benefit to direct customers (e.g.  direct beneficiaries and supporters) and indirect benefit to indirect customers (e.g.  indirect beneficiaries and trustees). 

The "contract culture" for Government and Local Authority funded projects, and the competition generated by this market philosophy, brings external pressure to bear on charities which work in these areas to consider the quality and effectiveness of their work.  As more public sector agencies build quality requirements into their contracts, charities wishing to bid for these projects will need to demonstrate a commitment to quality assurance.

Charities have started to rise to the challenge.  In September 1991, Napier House, a Tyneside residential home for the elderly mentally infirm, was the first care organisation in Europe to become ISO9000/BS5750 certified.  This well documented example (International Journal of Health Care Quality Assurance Vol 5 No 3 1992) has been followed by other care organisations seeking registration and investigating quality programmes.  Several major UK charities are now planning quality management programmes.

Quality does apply to the charity world.  The extent to which your charity can benefit from formalising quality into a system or programme is a key part of a feasibility study before embarking on a quality project.

Paradox 2: Quality is intangible but can be formalised as a system

Quality is an intangible notion.  It is difficult to define customer requirements in most organisations.  In charities, where the definition of customer is itself somewhat intangible it is nigh on impossible to form a clear view of how to fulfil customer requirements.  Despite this intangibility, most organisations attempt formal, tangible quality management systems as their initial attempt at quality management.  Does this make sense? We believe so.

It is difficult to break down the components of quality, but a formal quality system sets specific objectives and measures.  Remember that you define quality for your charity when you devise a formal quality system.  By putting a formal framework in place, we believe that charities can learn more about customer requirements and improve quality.  The quality system will not be right 1st time, or even the nth time, but the formal system is a tangible wedge upon which to build quality improvement and to ensure that you do not regress. 

Paradox 3: Real quality needs no external accreditation

Like the assertion "real learning requires no examination", the above statement is valid in theory yet has little practical meaning.  A student of a profession can read all the books, attend classes and do the practical work; but without the rigour of sitting the test the student's achievement remains unrecognised by others.  Such a student also has no personal benchmark of achievement.  In quality, third party accreditation requires an accepted universal standard (e.g.  ISO9000/BS5750) and a body of credible, independent assessors.  While we believe that sound quality policy and self measurement of quality is beneficial to charities, we also believe that the benefits are significantly enhanced when the claim is verified by an independent assessor.  There is little evidence of organisations achieving the benefits they sought without the rigour of "external examination" as a tangible outcome of the quality programme.

Paradox 4: Quality is free, quality costs money

The assertion "quality is free" (Crosby) is a bold one.  The short term costs of formal quality systems are likely to include: b effort, i.e.  time costs of staff involved in developing the quality system, launching the system and (most significantly) training the staff to use the system; 

  • fees for external assistance; 

  • assessment and registration fees with certification body; 

  • printing manuals and other incidental expenses.

The benefits are harder to quantify than estimating costs and effort.  Evidence from other service sectors (e.g.  the professions) suggests that a well designed quality system should pay for itself within two years through tangible benefits, such as reduced costs from improved productivity and fewer errors, alone.  Where quality systems are an essential competitive need (e.g.  Local Authorities requiring formal systems before awarding contracts) the tangible benefits must be significant.  Evaluate the costs and benefits before you start, then measure the benefits gained against benefits expected to appraise the success of your quality programme.

Paradox 5: Quality in charities should be top down, quality in charities should be bottom up

Senior management and trustees restate strategic objectives and outline the system in a quality policy.  This element of the system is "top down".

The main themes of a service sector quality system are resource management, service delivery and customer care.  Staff contribution to the system helps build the consensus and commitment required to reap the benefits of quality.  Staff contribution is underpinned by procedures, guidelines and standards, which may include legal and regulatory requirements (e.g.  the Charities Act and SORP 2).  The quality system should be defined through participation across the whole organisation.  Real change in work practices should come from the people who implement them, "bottom up".  We believe that quality systems are made effective through a creative tension between policy makers and implementors of the system.  The process is both top down and bottom up; it should involve all personnel.

Paradox 6: Can bureaucracy lead to better services in charities?

Quality systems manifest themselves as a series of checklists and forms.  It is hardly surprising that quality systems are frequently charged with being bureaucratic.  A well conceived quality system will keep the bureaucracy to a minimum and avoid hindering the organisation's service.  The system should, however, encapsulate best practice and allow room for change.  Like "justice", quality programmes should not only exist but should be seen to exist.  There will, therefore, be a bureaucratic element to any meaningful quality system.

We believe that the bureaucratic element of a quality system is a necessary evil.  Bureaucracy does not lead to better service, but quality management does lead to better service and quality needs some paperwork.  A formal quality system is an important step towards providing better service to customers.  The sense of achievement from achieving tangible quality standards gives impetus to the quality programme.  The formal system is a linchpin of further quality initiatives to prevent backsliding from quality goals.

Paradox 7: There is nothing beyond quality, ISO9000/BS5750 is only the start

Which comes first, total quality or ISO9000/BS5750 quality systems? To some extent they are simultaneous: embarking on a quality systems project is a first step towards total quality even if total quality does not feature in the initial objectives.  Thinking about who your customers are and how better to fulfil their requirements is likely to be of some benefit to customers once part of the resulting programme is implemented.  The benefits to customers are achieved regardless of whether the programme is a quality system, total quality or a combination of the two.

Total quality programmes embarked on in isolation often flounder by not defining tangible goals and benefits.  The benefits that do result from the programme are not locked in to the organisation's practices and benefits gained may evaporate at later stages of the project.  Although ISO9000/BS5750 formal quality systems are minimum standards, they do lock in the tangible benefits of quality while the organisation travels along the road to improvement.  As with any long journey, it makes sense to pace yourself and set milestones along the way.

The Paradoxes And Lessons Summarised


The Paradox

The Lesson



Quality applies to charities, quality does not apply to charities like us

know yourself



Quality is intangible but can be formalised as a system

define quality for yourself



Real quality needs no external certification

set tangible milestones



Quality is free, quality costs money

evaluate costs and benefits




Quality in charities should be top down, quality in charities should be bottom up

involve all personnel



Can bureaucracy lead to better services in charities?

quality should be seen to be done



There is nothing beyond quality, ISO9000/BS5750 is only the start

pace yourself