HR in the charity sector – insight from the front line

It’s probably fair to say that for many of us, there’s a perception that in the charity sector pay will be below average, practices might be a bit outdated and that budgets for HR initiatives will be tight.

Talk to HR practitioners working in the third sector, however, and a very different picture emerges. To start with, not all charities are created equal – and while there may be some that are struggling to move into the 21st century, there are many others with a highly professional approach, where innovative HR practice is taking place. In the recent HR Most Influential Awards, for example, practitioners from charities including The Princes Trust, the British Heart Foundation and Citizens Advice were recognised for their contribution to the profession.

As recent events have reminded us, the charity sector is also far from a quiet, uneventful backwater. HR professionals working in this field often have to deal with challenging situations with allegations of mismanagement and misuse of funds – not to mention the flood of sexual harassment allegations – the latest issues to hit the headlines.

We took the opportunity at the recent Cezanne HR UK user group meeting to chat informally to a range of charity HR folk about their experiences of working in the not-for-profit sector. The overwhelming consensus was that it can be a stimulating, fulfilling place to be. The people related challenges are just as broad-reaching as those found in pretty much any workplace – but the backdrop allows scope for creative approaches and offers careers that have both depth and breadth.

Here’s our round-up of what they told us about the rewards of working in HR in the third sector – and the challenges practitioners are likely to have to grapple with when in-role:

The Rewards

  • Making a difference: HR practitioners often end up in charity organisations because they have a connection or commitment to a particular cause. But even if that’s not the case, working for a not-for-profit can provide a deep sense of satisfaction and ‘giving back’. By their very nature, charities are often filled with people who are passionate about what they do (although there are of course exceptions), which tends to make for a values-driven culture and a great place to work.
  • Work-life balance: Working for a third sector organisation certainly isn’t an easy ride. As in any other organisation there will be deadlines to meet, heavy workloads and challenging times when it’s ‘all hands on deck’. Many not-for-profits do, however, value flexibility and work-life balance and don’t have quite the same 24/7, always-on culture often found in big corporates.
  • Broadening your experience: with most of the c170,000 registered charities in the UK having a turnover of less than half a million, many charities will have small HR teams or a stand-alone practitioner. This often means it’s possible to get involved in the full range of HR activities, from pay and reward through to performance and engagement – which is great for learning and building a wide portfolio of skills.

The Challenges

  • Recruitment: Opinion was divided about the challenges of recruitment in the charity sector. Some HR practitioners we spoke to found it fairly easy to fill roles, with people who were passionate about their cause keen to get involved and make a contribution. Others highlighted the difficulty, particularly with back-office roles like finance, legal or marketing, of having to compete for talented staff who could get much higher rates of pay elsewhere. The key, it seems, is to develop a creative approach which focuses on building employer brand and highlighting non-financial benefits like learning and development, the opportunity to make a real contribution from the very start, or the options for flexible working.
  • The B-word: Brexit and the current deal or no-deal scenario is posing challenges in the Third Sector, as elsewhere. Charities who rely heavily on employing EU nationals are worried about skills gaps and are having to think hard about workforce planning. One practitioner also highlighted the uncertainty of the situation around the EU grants that many charities have relied on to support their work.
  • Resourcing priorities: With not-for-profits also under the spotlight when it comes to the amount of their budget that is spent on overheads and admin, HR people can also find themselves having to work hard to justify expenditure on systems or people-related initiatives. Getting the message across that many of these initiatives are in fact highly cost effective and will deliver savings in the longer term can be a challenge.
  • Commercial drive: Charities are increasingly finding themselves having to take a more commercial approach, with many now developing consultancy offerings or introducing charges for services that might previously have been free. This can often lead to unrest among employees, particularly if they feel this is counter to their values and undermines what they joined the organisation to do. Charity HR folk often find themselves having to work hard to communicate and engage with staff, so that they understand the necessity for commerciality and buy in to the necessary changes.
  • Ethical issues: Recent events have put pressure on charities to be more transparent than ever before about their policies and processes. It’s also the case that it is often a fine line in a not-for-profit in getting the right balance between staying congruent with the charity’s aims – and making sometimes difficult people-related decisions. In a recent article in HR Magazine, for example, a charity sector professional describes the tension for a health charity in having to decide how much paid sick leave it should offer its own staff. Necessary restructuring programmes can also be difficult to implement in an ‘empathetic’ environment or where the charity’s aims are around issues like stress, mental health and employment.

One message that came out loud and clear from our conversations was the value of partnerships – whether that is working with suppliers to find cost-effective solutions or joining forces with other voluntary sector organisations to share resources. The Small Charities Coalition, with its community of around 5000 members, is a good first port of call for practitioners who want to network and build relationships, while CIPD members may find their local branch a good place to find colleagues already working in the charity sector who can provide insight and advice.

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