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Don't go! Tackling talent retention in the charity sector

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Hiring great people is one thing, but holding on to them can be quite another when there's tough competition for talent.

The good folks of Charity Finance Group recently asked our finance specialists Simon Bascombe, Belton Bass and Matthew Smith about talent retention among charities and charity finance professionals in particular: what drives them to stay put or move on, and what kind of retention methods are working for charities?

Originally published in CFG's Finance Focus magazine, here's what they had to say.

There’s something a little ironic about a charity recruitment business advising charities on staff retention. It's a bit like smartphone providers encouraging you not to upgrade to a new one, or sofa companies telling you how to get a few more years out of that two-seater so you needn’t go to their last ever closing down sale (again).

But even for those of us who thrive on filling charity vacancies, high staff turnover is rarely good news in the long term. It’s generally a sign of problems in the organisation that are likely to be exacerbated by the ongoing loss of experience and skills, affecting productivity, increasing costs and lowering morale with every leaving card that comes around. Tackling the issues takes a toll on limited resources and the organisation’s ability to achieve its goals, while persistent problems may threaten its long-term viability as a charity. Which is bad news for beneficiaries, supporters, staff and yes, even recruiters.

With most UK industries reporting skills shortages, talent retention isn’t just a third sector issue of course, and it’s worth remembering that zero staff turnover isn’t necessarily desirable either – would you really sign up for the charity where no-one ever leaves? But surveys over the past decade have consistently shown turnover in the voluntary sector to be above average for the UK workforce, suggesting there may be particular challenges facing charities.

Challenges in charity finance

In our experience of staffing within finance, two things in particular stand out:

1. Of all the charity professionals we meet on a daily basis, candidates for finance positions tend to have by far the clearest view of where they want to work. They’re rarely interested in simply working for ‘a charity’ but have a particular cause or organisation firmly in mind, and will hold out for the right opportunity.

2. Finance staff will typically remain in their roles for considerably longer than, say, fundraisers, who in London can move as often as every 12-18 months, since a major shortage of candidates means there’s always an employer willing to offer a higher salary to tempt them away. That’s true to an extent in finance too, but in our experience a tenure of 4-5 years in a role is far more typical, perhaps reflecting the relative importance of organisation/cause vs remuneration for finance professionals.

Those priorities are also borne out when it comes to counter-offers. As the battle for talent has intensified over the last few years, we’ve certainly seen a rise in higher salaries being offered in a bid to retain departing employees, but in our experience more than 90% of these bids fail, as salary is rarely the key driver of the move.

However the latest CIPD/Hays Resourcing and Talent Planning Survey reports that not-for-profit organisations find qualified professionals (such as accountants) the hardest category of workers to retain, with 38% of organisations experiencing difficulties, so there’s little room for complacency. 

Meanwhile Brexit – in whatever form it may eventually take (or not) – is also expected to exacerbate issues, with Charity Finance Group recently telling MPs that ‘an end to free movement, and further restrictions on immigration, will make it even harder for charities to hire the workers they need.’

What the sector is saying about retention

In the course of our work, we have conversations with candidates every day which naturally touch on their motivations for moving on or staying in their current role.

Finance officer Afsheen Khan, Finance Officer at the British Heart Foundation noted the varied workload and sense of working for a worthwhile goal, telling us “it makes me feel I’m giving back to the community. The sector requires different skills and I hear incredible stories which I do not find in the private sector. It’s inspirational working for an organisation that addresses public health issues, and in the back of my mind the cause is always there.”

Fellow charity finance candidate Lookman Kazeem also cited a relaxed working environment and flexible working from home as factors with strong appeal for those seeking a better work/life balance or with family commitments, and told us that more opportunities for progression, better pay and more investment in training would have the most positive influence on retention.

Many charities are taking this on board, experimenting with flexible working, the work environment, or a focus on employee wellbeing.

International campaigners against environmental and human rights abuses Global Witness recently did all three, as chief operating officer Mark Woodridge told us:

“The old Global Witness office had 9,700 square feet of space and 95 fantastic staff each with their own desk.  The atmosphere was library-like, staid and stifling. The odd eruption of laughter often met with a stern look! The number of hours worked equated to an employee’s commitment to the organisation as well as neglected dead plants.  This environment was at odds with our ethos of being pioneers and innovators and a stated commitment to putting our employees’ wellbeing at the heart of everything we do.

We moved to a 5,500 square feet space where our architects won the trust of our staff, taking them (grudgingly at first) on a journey to agile working i.e.70 shared desks and a number of other work settings. We also introduced complete flexibility on the location and timing of work within a seven-hour day and put a plant on every desk. These days, the buzz immediately hits you when you enter the office and working effectively is more important than long hours. We believe this can only help us attract and retain staff. Nurtured by an employee team of urban gardeners, even the plants are thriving.”

Meanwhile fellow green campaigners the Environmental Investigation Agencyhave recognised the potential benefits of our furry, four-legged friends on employee wellbeing, designating their Islington HQ a ‘pet-friendly office’ – which in practice has meant a dog-friendly office to date, but is almost certain to improve retention, not least of their owners.

Greater engagement and integration with the organisation was also cited as key factor in retaining employees by Channing Rider, director of finance with theWinston Churchill Memorial Trust:

“Good staff retention is often a reflection of the recruitment process having been thorough, so the right person is in place for the opportunity created. People will always eventually leave an organisation for one reason or another but, I think, the sort of factors that encourage people to stay are: good working relationships with colleagues, a job with a learning curve, opportunities for progression and training, a sense of purpose, a decent working environment.

I think people tend to leave if they feel detached from an organisation, with decisions being made without any reference to them so that work becomes a transactional arrangement rather than a relationship where mutual loyalty and respect is allowed to grow. We experience very little turnover, which I interpret as a good sign.”

Our tips on retaining your charity finance team

It’s important to note where charity finance employees are ‘lost’ to. Given their skills are perhaps the most transferable of all charity workers, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a significant proportion of staff move onwards not to other charities, but to companies in the private sector.

However, as the Harris Hill inbox always ably demonstrates, plenty of commercial finance staff are very keen to move in the opposite direction.

In a battle for retention with commercial organisations, charities typically have clear differentiators in matters like work/life balance, flexibility of working hours and locations, the working environment, and the attraction of working for the greater good. Most will never be able to compete with the private sector on salaries, but in our view this needn’t be cause for concern. Employees motivated primarily by money are always likely to leave the sector, but our experience shows that finance staff are drawn to charities by those very differentiators, and suggests that the organisations best placed to retain a long-term, highly committed workforce are those who embrace them most fully.

And the same can be said when the competition is from other charities. The employees most likely to become your dedicated long-term staff are the ones who chose your organisation precisely because of the factors that make it unique. They want to work for a charity, and they want to work for your charity because of its particular strengths, so the best method of retention is to play to them, emphasise them and exemplify them!


Simon Bascombe, Belton Bass and Matthew Smith

Specialists in charity finance recruitment, Harris Hill

First published in Finance Focus, the magazine for CFG members, January 2019

Contact our finance team on 020 7820 7311 or via email.

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