Almost a third of bosses of the top 100 charities are paid more than £200,000 a year and one is paid about £1m, according to a survey published on Tuesday.
The top paid charity executives were at the London Clinic, a charitable hospital; Nuffield Health, which runs hospitals and gyms; and the Royal Opera House in 2011, the research by Third Sector magazine shows.
The mean average of the top 100 earners was £208,000 to £216,000 a year, while the median was £165,000.
Stephen Cook, editor of the Third Sector, said he wanted to shed light on the nature and definition of charitable organisations, which are in part funded through tax breaks.
“The figures might seem surprisingly high to those who equate the word ‘charity’ with small, volunteer-based organisations,” Mr Cook said. “But some of the charities in question are as large, complex and professionalised as major corporations, and the levels of pay are market led.”
The Charity Commission came under fire from MPs earlier this month who questioned its ability to regulate the sector after an investigation into a high-profile tax avoidance scheme by a charity called the Cup Trust.
High pay, which became a sensitive subject as in the banking sector after the financial crisis, is now being more closely scrutinised in other arenas. George Osborne signalled a crackdown on civil service pay on Tuesday, after millions of workers enjoyed a pay rise despite a supposed pay freeze in Whitehall.
Charities in the medical, health and science sectors paid their highest earners the most, with a mean average of between £481,000 and £489,000 in the top 100, followed by arts organisations with an average of between £308,000 and £315,000.
Quangos, government agencies and leisure trusts paid their top earners the least: a mean of between £156,00 and £159,000 a year.
The top 10 charity payers were the London Clinic, Nuffield Health, the Royal Opera House, the Wellcome Trust, St Andrew’s Healthcare, City and Guilds of London Institute, the College of Law, the Royal Society, the Consumers’ Association and the Institution of Engineering and Technology.