HR in the charity sector

Published on: 19 May 2016



Aligning with organisation values is plain sailing for those working in the third sector. For many it is the reason why they choose to work there and it is easy to see why so many gain job satisfaction from being part of a team that helps deliver on the objectives of a worthy cause. Yet most are run just like any other business and the role therefore involves being hands-on and covering the range of HR duties that would be involved in working for any private sector business. 

Those that are creative and prepared to get involved at all levels of the charity will do best as it seeks professionals that can turn their hand to a range of issues and work the HR budget carefully, as beneficiaries will demand that every penny is spent wisely. 

Recruitment is also a key issue and anyone working in the sector will need to have solid experience in this area. Many report that the hidden secret is that charities actually provide you with great learning opportunities, an opportunity to push through change and pay and benefits on a par with the public sector. 

What’s the culture like?

There’s a huge swathe of charities, some with deep pockets and large numbers of employees, others run on a shoe-string with a handful of staff. In September 2015 the Charity Commission reported that there were 165,495 registered charities in England and Wales. What unites them is that for many it is a deliberate choice to work there and they do so because they feel close to the values of the charity. 

This is perhaps unparalleled in the private sector. Kathy Osborne, Executive Director of People at Macmillan Cancer Support who previously worked in the private sector as HR Director at Barratts Trading Ltd and Hamleys of London says this is one of the big differences of working for a charity. “Macmillan really is value driven and that forms a huge part of our engagement strategy. At every corporate induction, which is around once a month we have a ‘Cancer Voice’ where a cancer survivor or sufferer comes and talks about their experience and this also happens at every Macmillan event too. It is very powerful.”

Corinne Mills, Group Director of People at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), who worked for nine years as the Head of HR at Marks & Spencer says that HR is really valued in the sector: “The HR team is very professional and trusted. We are seen as an enabler and a function that provides solutions.”

Which HR skills does the charity sector demand?

Creative recruitment: HR professionals will need to be resourceful in finding a range of people from volunteers to professional social workers, operational and support roles. Natalie Styles, Director of Corporate Management overseeing HR at Combat Stress, The Veterans’ Mental Health Charity says: “People aren’t necessarily going to come and find you. Working for a charity can be an unknown quantity. Advertising is very important for the smaller charities with social media becoming a popular choice for creating a brand about the charity being a great place to work.” Osborne agrees and says recruitment is a key challenge at Macmillan too: “What we have found is that when people leave University it is often not their career of choice to work for a charity. We don’t have any financial levers to pull although Macmillan do pay in the upper quartile for the charities sector, but it’s not the same as the commercial sector. So we have had to work at attracting candidates for other reasons including the learning and development opportunities we can provide, the career progression they can get here and also there is the power of being involved in an organisation that has a real impact on people’s lives – that’s something people will get out of bed in the morning for.” 

Mills has noticed a new trend at RNIB too: “People have left us and come back again. I suppose it’s a quick way of gaining experience.” It’s something RNIB are open to but they have become more switched on about pay: “We have become much more commercial. We have introduced performance related pay for example.” 

Training and engaging staff: training that is accessible to front-line charity staff is as essential as it is for those that work in the office. Whilst staff are often very mission-focused, HR has to ensure that levels of motivation don’t rely purely on goodwill and often this has to be done with limited financial input. At Combat Stress, they bring their staff and volunteers together for motivational employee conferences but secure their venues for free to ensure money is not wasted.

Volunteers are a hugely important part of the charities’ workforce. Mills says that the RNIB has put a lot of effort into engaging them: “We consider our volunteers at the highest level. Our volunteers are managed by individual teams and it’s important that there is an ongoing dialogue between them. We communicate in lots of others way too by regular mail outs and newsletters. We also like to thank them personally. We have volunteers week and try to recognise them all the time.”

Courage: Some charities have come together in recent years. At RNIB there have been big changes with a number of different charities joining them whilst retaining their own unique brand. Mills says these big changes require you to be brave: “We have recently moved all our employees onto the same set of terms and conditions and everyone is on the NLW. These big projects mean you have to have courage. To help our HR team we make sure they have the right data, support and are well prepared.”

What are the HR challenges in the charity sector?

Grievances and redundancies: are as much a part of HR life in the charity sector as they are in the private sector. Styles says: “We have to work in the interests of the veterans at all times, that is our concern so sometimes hard decisions have to be made.” Anyone hoping to work in the sector will need to be as comfortable with delivering bad news and mediating in an employee relations dispute as they would be if faced with a similar case in the private sector. Osborne adds: “Macmillan is currently in a period of growth but that said we have had to make some hard decisions in the past. The difference is that we have to ensure that it’s not a bad experience for those that are involved.”

Diversity: Not only is it a challenge for the sector to find the right people but it is also a challenge to build a workforce that is representative of its beneficiaries. Osborne admits this is a problem at Macmillan: “Our workforce is 76% female, I am not sure why that is, but it is a fact, we also aren’t very diverse. So we are working on that and are putting together some more attractive benefits such as flexible working and remote working and we are attending a range of events where we can recruit more people such as career fairs and other events.”

Commercial drive: Being commercial is a very important part of working for a charity. At RNIB, Mills has worked hard to focus upon this with some of the services that were previously offered free of charge now being billed: “We offer a consultancy service and in the last 18 months we now charge for some of this advice. Many of the companies that previously received it for free, can’t believe that we didn’t charge sooner!”

What do those in the sector say about working there?

“One of the key differences about working in the charity sector is that you exist for your beneficiaries and everyone has their eye on that. It is very easy and transparent to see what you are doing and why you are doing it.”
Natalie Styles, Director of Corporate Management overseeing HR at Combat Stress, The Veterans’ Mental Health Charity